Official: nuke plant flaws different from 1979

Cracks in the steel reactor vessels of two nuclear plants in Belgium were found in 1979, three years before they came online, but they are unrelated to possible cracks discovered this summer, a spokeswoman for the country's nuclear regulatory agency said Thursday.

Belgium's nuclear regulator announced this month that ultrasonic tests showed possible hairline cracks in the vessel housing the reactor at the Doel 3 nuclear plant near Antwerp. The plant was offline for a regular safety check, and it has yet to be determined whether it will ever go online again.

The Federal Agency for Nuclear Control also ordered the shutdown of the Tihange 2 reactor, 90 kilometers (55 miles) southeast of Brussels, for checks because it had a vessel manufactured by the same company.

De Morgen newspaper reported Thursday that its archives showed it had reported that cracks were found in the reactor vessels of both plants 33 years ago. It quoted a 1980 article as saying, "question marks exist over small cracks in the inlet and outlet sections" of the reactor vessels. The paper also quoted a government official as telling the Senate in 1979 that there were possible cracks.

Karina De Beule, a spokeswoman for Belgium's nuclear regulatory agency, told The Associated Press on Thursday that the cracks discovered in 1979 were in a different part of the vessels than the possible cracks found this summer.

"They have nothing to do with the problem today," De Beule said.

She said the earlier cracks were taken seriously, and that Electrabel, the energy corporation that runs the plants, as well as Rotterdam Drydock Company, which made the vessels, submitted information showing they posed no risk. That information was evaluated and no risk was found, she said.

Last week, Belgian authorities convened a meeting of nuclear experts from countries with similar vessels, including the United States, France, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Germany, Spain, Sweden and the U.K., to share information on the possible cracks detected this summer.

The head of the nuclear regulator, Willy De Roovere, said last week it was possible the Doel 3 plant would never come back online. It had been projected to continue operating until 2022.

The Tihange 2 plant is still being assessed. Belgium generates more than 50 percent of its electricity from nuclear power.

De Morgen reported that it asked De Roovere about the cracks found in 1979, but he said he remembered little of the discovery. During that period, prior to becoming a federal regulator, De Roovere managed the construction and startup of the Doel 3 plant for Electrabel, the energy corporation.