Could a new owner of Liddell power station keep workers safe?

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Any buyer of the ageing Liddell coal fired power generator needs to take account of the significant safety risks to workers of ageing, failing equipment.

Photo 1 – Liddell Unit No.2 Steam Main Creep Fatigue Crack Failure Detail
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The current Australian Coalition government has been pushing for Alinta Energy, or another party, to take over the operation of the Liddell Power Station and run it well past its current proposed closure date in 2022.

As a reliability and maintenance engineer with power station experience, I know it is technically possible to run a coal fired power station well beyond their typical design life of 20 year.

But the risks are significant. Let’s look at some history.

Over 30 years ago in the Southern California Edison’s (SCE) Mohave Power Station in Laughlin, Nevada there was a massive steam pipe failure, unleashing high-pressure, superheated steam into the plant’s control room.

The explosion had such force that it knocked down a wall and sealed the exit doors shut. Sixteen people were severely burned in that explosion and six of them died. Some of the steam burns survivors had lost their hands, some had lost their legs and some parts of their faces.

The SCE company issued a report soon after that absolved itself of any wrongdoing but the investigation by the regional Public Utilities Commission found the opposite.

The company had failed to maintain the integrity and safety of the failed pipe and did not have an appropriate inspection program of their steam system piping.

This incident was a major influence on power stations around the world reminding engineers that high temperature steam pipes deteriorate over time through Creep Fatigue.

I know the NSW Electricity Commission, which  ran all NSW coal power stations at that time, initiated a substantial inspection program to assess and manage this risk.

That was a long time ago and there is little public information available that suggests all current coal fired power station owners in Australia maintain a similar safety programs for their high temperature steam pipes.

Last year I wrote an article to highlight the safety risk from high temperature steam pipe failures and the relatively recent horrific power station steam pipe failure in China that killed 21 people.

I highlighted the technical risk from this failure problem for Liddell power station, now around 45 years old. It was no surprise when someone in Australia’s reliability community sent me photos of an actual creep fatigue failure in a main steam main for Liddell Unit No.2. See photos 1 & 2 below.



Liddell Unit No.2 Steam Main Creep Fatigue Crack Failure Detail


Liddell Unit No.2 Steam Main Showing Creep Fatigue Crack Failure Location

(Just for Reliability techo’s – This is centreline crack in a major circumferential weld in a main steam line. The irregular nature of the crack and the rough texture of the surface of the crack is indicative of Type 1 creep cracking which is likely to have originated at an internal weld defect such as lack of fusion. Looks like some residual cracking at the toe weld just to the left of the first joint of the guys finger on Photo 1.

The main crack defect would require full weld removal and repair but there would be still issues with weld heat affected zone (Type II/Type III) since these cracks are more insidious {Comment from NDT, Plant Integrity & welding expert David Barnett}.)

Expert assessment of this crack indicated that a full failure of the steam pipe could easily have occurred with massive amounts of steam released and anyone near the released steam receiving horrific burns with major fatalities.

The severity of this crack would normally be interpreted as a strong indication that end of plant life has been reached. The Mohave Power Station pipe failure crack was not as bad as this one.

It is very easy for the non-engineering management of a company such as Alinta Energy to say that they can safely and reliably operate a very old coal fired power station.

I would advise any company taking over a 45-year-old coal fired power station with a less than stellar maintenance history to be wary of the hidden and not so hidden costs.

This is especially so with such a controversial plant takeover where there will be lots of public scrutiny of the safety and reliability performance of the plant.

Due diligence for any Liddell plant takeover would require a team with the engineering experience of the full range of safety, reliability and operational problems with very old power stations to develop the overall plant improvement program that would be required.

Alinta’s management should be wary of the very substantial funding that would be required.

The experience of the Labor’s home insulation scheme should make any politician wary of having their names too closely associated with controversial initiatives that may have future safety and fatality consequences.

Peter Todd is Chairman Asset Reliability Improvement Association

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  1. Chris Drongers 1 year ago

    I love technical explanations that put physics against economics. Make the suits watch videos of what could happen and the move the senior accountant’s into offices adjacent to the boiler or turbine room.

    • solarguy 1 year ago

      The suits don’t give a damn, that’s why tragic accidents like this happen. Profits over any safety!

      • Joe 1 year ago

        Yep, that’s the case alright. I know from first hand experience. Our Govt’s are piss weak when it comes to worker safety. You only see ‘safety measures’ put in place after some disaster has occurred or when The Coroner or a Royal Commission has been involved.

        • solarguy 1 year ago

          Oh and then work cover make stupid rules like:
          A safety harness must be worn and hooked up to a lanyard when 1.5 meters from the ground. But that lanyard has to be anchored on the roof in the first place. Catch 22, if you are going up a ladder to install anchor and an inspector sees you he can fine you megabucks, because you are 1.5m off the deck.

          • Joe 1 year ago

            Hi my Solarman, I think ‘Work Cover’ now call themselves SafeWork NSW which is still the joke, yes.

          • solarguy 1 year ago

            Should call themselves SHAMOZZLE NSW INC.

      • Calamity_Jean 1 year ago

        They would care if their offices were near a likely point of failure.

    • Nick Kemp 1 year ago

      Pah – Physics – that’s just poncy science stuff

  2. DJR96 1 year ago

    Liddells only “value” is the transmission connection point. A ready made point to connect any new generation. AGL will not surrender that for a moment. And nor should they.

    • Malcolm M 1 year ago

      It also has a lake and a nearby coalmine pit about 300m deep – a great place for pumped storage, and a productive use for a coalmine void.

      Generators at Liddell are currently only producing only 80% of their rated capacity, despite AEMO issuing a lack of reserve notice for the NSW market 1800 to 1900 tonight. So pressures must be limited to reduce further steam leaks. Three large coal generators are out of action (at Bayswater, Eraring and Vales Point), and a unit at Eraring is constrained to 60% of its rating. So overall about 2300 MW of capacity missing. It’s a healthy bunch!

      • DJR96 1 year ago

        Even 80% could be optimistic. I think one of the four units is permanently out of action, never to be operating again.
        AGL state it generates about 8000GWh/year. That’s only a 913MW average. Under 50% capacity factor.

  3. Cooma Doug 1 year ago

    Thanks Peter.
    This is a very important write.
    I hope the ABC has it.
    Would love to ask the PM some questions with that document at hand. Certainly substantiates the use by date applied to these old chuggers.

  4. BushAxe 1 year ago

    Pollies ignore practical stuff like this because companies tell them they can manage the risk out and keep the plant ‘safe’. Engie/Alinta closed Hazelwood/Northern because they weren’t prepared to take on this risk.

  5. Nick Kemp 1 year ago

    We don’t need to bother about safety issues – Only working class people will be at risk.

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