Chemical fire delays work on solar thermal project

Emergency services yesterday remained at the site of a chemical fire at the solar thermal power station at Jemalong.

The fire started from a tank leaking a metallic sodium solution about 9.30am Saturday, prompting the evacuation of workers and neighbours. 

Vast Solar’s chief technology officer James Fisher said yesterday that the fire was under control and the thick white smoke cloud it produced was not toxic. 

Mr Fisher said the metallic sodium solution burned when it reacted with the water in the air. 

NSW Fire and Rescue and Hazmat used soda ash - several tonnes of which was trucked in from Dubbo and the ACT - to extinguish the fire. 

Forbes Fire Brigade captain Brian Clarke was on site yesterday and said there were concerns about the forecast rain, which would complicate the situation. 

He said all precautions were being taken to protect the spill from water and limit the chance of further flare-ups.

Mr Fisher from Vast Solar was expecting to start clean up and prevent any further leaking today.

“We have removed the insulation from around the tank and by tonight (Monday) it should have frozen,” he said yesterday. 

“Once it’s frozen, it can’t leak.”

Mr Fisher said the full impact of the fire was not really known yet, but it would significantly delay the project. 

“This time last week I would have said we were very close to getting a 30MW plant going,” he said.

“Right now, it’s hard to say.

“The main thing is that everyone is safe.”

Mr Fisher said the solar thermal plant was in the “research and development” phase and there was a lot to learn. 

“It’s something we did have detailed plans for and as far as that goes, it all went without a hitch - the local emergency services were fantastic and everybody got in and helped,” he said. 

Vast Solar will look at what can be done differently to prevent something like it happening again. 

“While we did have plans there are a lot of unknowns,” Mr Fisher said. 

The NSW Environment Protection Authority (EPA) has tested samples from nearby paddocks where the smoke had settled, but did not find any impact.

The EPA has also tested water and soil in the path of the plume and not found any impact.

Fire and Rescue NSW is maintaining a smaller exclusion zone immediately around the site as a precaution.

The EPA has issued the company with a clean-up direction, requiring it to classify any waste generated by the incident so it can be disposed of at an appropriately licensed waste facility.

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