That’s what was reported in all of the media when Port Talbot experienced a works-wide power cut on Thursday the 11th of February 2016. I beg to differ, or at least, I have serious doubts about this scenario.
I happened to be in work at the time (the event happened closer to 7.30am than 8am as reported on the BBC website), and the first thing I noticed was that the lights in the office went off and then came on again. The blip was apparently not severe enough to turn off my computer, but even so, I went to see if anyone else had experienced the same thing in the building. As we were discussing what could have caused the interruption, the lights started to go on and off in a rhythmic pattern and finally stayed off.
Not only was my computer off this time, but also anything electrical and even the landlines. Fortunately a few people had mobile phones on them, and we quickly established that the power cut was far-reaching, and possibly works-wide. We also got reports from cleaners in the AGO (Abbey General Offices) that the substation nearby (which is where all the outside power enters the works) had made the sound of a minor explosion.
As people were starting to trickle into the office for their normal start of the day we received tales of massive flames coming from the coke ovens. Now this had been interpreted by the outside world as “the steel plant is on fire”. Not so. It is actually a safety feature of the coke ovens that the exhaust valves open up in the case of a power failure, otherwise the pressure build-up would destroy the batteries. However, the gas formed in the coke ovens is rich in carbon monoxide, and on contact with the atmosphere the hot gas turned to massive flames.
I’m fairly confident that the fire service only made sure that the fire didn’t spread to surrounding buildings and equipment, because there was no point extinguishing the flames until the power was turned back on, which happened within one to two hours from the power failure. From that moment on the extraction system could operate again and the valves could be shut again.
But was there a lightning strike at the time of the power cut, as widely reported in the media ? I didn’t hear any thunder following the alleged lightning – after all, we were about a mile away from the substation, and a lightning strike that close would surely have been both visible and audible. I later heard from someone at Occupational Health that a nurse was just passing the substation when there was an explosion there – but not a word about lightning striking.
My opinion is that the management team did not contradict the media’s lightning story, or may even have suggested it as a possibility because it was a rather convenient piece of fiction. After all, lightning is an act of god, and does require no intervention by the Health & Safety inspectorate. Whereas if the actual cause was a malfunction in the substation, then that WOULD have to be investigated as an incident. I wonder what was decided in the end – there definitely was no follow-up bulletin clarifying what had happened.