A MUSWELLBROOK father of four reckons he is lucky to survive what SafeWork NSW has described as a "catastrophic" transformer failure at Liddell power station on Thursday afternoon.
Gus McNeill, an experienced power plant operator at the Liddell, was flown to Royal North Shore Hospital's burns unit after he was burned with hot oil that exploded from a high-voltage transformer on the third of the power station's four 500-megawatt generators.
"I won't lie, it's been hell," Mr McNeill said. "I'm lucky to be alive, but I am alive, and that's the main thing."
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Union organiser Ian Braithwaite said Mr McNeill received burns to his back and the back of his legs.
Mr Braithwaite, from the Community and Public Sector Union, said Mr McNeill had been moved out of Royal North Shore's intensive care unit but would remain in the hospital for some days before being moved to a bed closer to home.
The details of Thursday's incident remain the subject of official investigation but two SafeWork NSW provisional improvement notices or PINs issued to AGL on Friday describe the transformer failure as "catastrophic".
The first notice said people may be at risk of "injury from oil scold burns while changing the in-service generator transformer oil coolers" as happened on Thursday.
"You must immediately cease changing the in-service generator transformer oil coolers until the procedure has been reviewed and appropriate persons re-trained to minimise the risk of inadvertently reducing the oil flow to the transformers . . ." the mandatory section of the notice says.
The second notice said nobody could work on the 330-kilovolt/22-kilovolt transformer in question because of its "structural integrity being compromised . . . as a result of a 'catastrophic' failure". Nobody could work on the transformer until "a safe methodology has been developed in consultation with a 'structural' engineer to make the transformer safe for work to be undertaken".
Oil could be drained from a bund around the transformer but only after an adjacent besser-block wall had been inspected.
As the Newcastle Herald reported on Saturday, Liddell owner AGL was sanctioned with a $1.2 million "enforceable undertaking" in 2018. The SafeWork undertaking says "two workers sustained burns when an arc flash occurred whilst they were undertaking maintenance and general inspection work on a transformer" at Liddell.
"The task was performed on the incorrect transformer and during the 'test before touch - prove dead' procedure, an arc flash occurred and the workers sustained burn injuries," the undertaking says.
Mr Braithwaite said one of the pair was an apprentice at the time, and that the incident had been traumatic.
"Now, as then, we have concerns about the way AGL is operating Liddell power station,'' Mr Braithwaite said.
"And some of those concerns relate to work being carried out on equipment that has not been isolated, or is the incorrect plant.
"Safety issues are a constant concern at AGL Macquarie. Their safety system in our opinion continues to be under-par with other power stations around NSW.
"We will be raising those concerns with Safe Work NSW in the New Year."
A spokesperson for AGL said the company was working with SafeWork NSW "to understand how the incident occurred". The spokesperson said AGL's highest priority was managing the safety of its people and adhering to its regulatory requirements.
"At all times, we endeavour to eliminate or manage risks associated within our operations, some of which contain many hazards," the spokesperson said.
AGL was focused on Mr McNeill and his family and would continue to support them "during this difficult time".
AGL told the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) on Friday that Liddell's third unit might be out of service for up to two-and-a-half months, and AEMO has confirmed the incident triggered the first power "emergency" of the summer.
The Liddell transformer incident has already been parlayed into the electricity "culture wars", with some in the renewables lobby painting it as further evidence of inherent unreliability.
Others, including major power users such as Tomago Aluminium, fear that unless something is done to change the pricing structure of the National Electricity Market, baseload power stations will become harder and harder to run with financial viability.
Supporters say it is obvious that renewables cannot physically replace coal at present. At 9pm last night, wind was producing 177 megawatts of the 7300 megawatts being used at the time
AEMO confirmed it issued a Lack of Reserve 2 (LOR2) market notice for almost an hour from 5.10pm on Thursday.
As the Herald reported on Saturday, Tomago Aluminium was prepared to cut power use under AEMO's Reliability and Emergency Reserve Trader (the 'RERT' scheme) but another power user stepped in before it.
AEMO said it could not disclose the details of RERT contracts but confirmed this was the first use of RERT in the 2021-21 summer. It said there was no impact in terms of power loss to ordinary consumers.
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