19 May 2005 Edition

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Same old Sellafield safety record


It's been an action-packed six weeks for the British nuclear industry. First, there were the new names for old companies — we welcome the Nuclear Decommission-ing Authority (NDA) and the British Nuclear Group (BNG) — and new strategies for old problems of how to dismantle aging power stations and make safe thousands of tonnes of hazardous radioactive waste, not to mention the question of who is going to pay for it all.

Then there was the case of history repeating itself, as yet another leak at Sellafield became an 'incident' but not an accident, even though 83,000 litres of a lethal nitric acid, mixed with uranium and plutonium, still lies on the floor of an inaccessible chamber within the THORP fuel reprocessing facility.

Of most concern, though, was the 20-day delay between the staff at Sellafield discovering the leak and the Irish Government being informed of its seriousness. Despite this near three-week gap, Environment Minister Dick Roche spoke last week of how "Ireland was advised promptly of this latest development".

Roche did say, though, that the Sellafield leak "does not inspire confidence in the processes at the Sellafield site". Sinn Féin TD for Louth and the party's environment spokesperson, Arthur Morgan, said that "the core problem remains the gross mismanagement by BNFL of this 700-acre site, and there is no real sign of them changing their ways".

So, with yet another emergency at Sellafield showing the dangers of nuclear power, what are we to make to make of another nuclear leak, this time from sources close to the British Government? A secret post-election briefing document proposes building at least ten new nuclear generators in Britain to help Blair's government meet their Kyoto CO2 emissions commitments.

So what has happened over the last six weeks in Britain?

1 April 2005

The Nuclear Decommis-sioning Authority is launched on April Fool's Day. The NDA, has, according to its website, "strategic responsibility for the decommissioning and clean-up of all 20 of the UK public sector civil nuclear sites". This does not mean that the NDA is going to do any of the actual decommissioning work. Their job is to foot the bill, through the British taxpayer and commissioning others to do the work

Enter British Nuclear Fuels, who have created a new company called the "British Nuclear Group, which promises "intelligent nuclear clean up". British Nuclear Group now runs the Sellafield site and is responsible for the clean up on behalf of the NDA, with the income from fuel reprocessing being used to pay some of the costs of decommissioning.

14 April

The Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland (RPII) releases its report on its September 2004 visit to Sellafield. The RPII says that reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel at Sellafield is due to finish in 2012, but it would need significant investment for up to 150 years.

Key to making the waste at Sellafield relatively safer is a vitrification process, whereby liquid wastes are made solid in glass blocks. However, the RPII report states that the older production lines for this conversion process have "not always operated at full capacity".

The RPII report also states that the management of what they call "legacy waste" and the decommissioning process, "may also give rise to as yet unspecified discharges" from the Sellafield site.

18 April

Staff at Sellafield notice problems in the mechanical readings of liquid waste flowing through the THORP plant. It takes another two days before they are sure that the plant is leaking nuclear waste.

20 April

The British Nuclear Group informs the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate (NII), which is part of the British Health and Safety Executive, that the leak has happened. An Phoblacht contacted the inspectorate to ask how this happened and they said that some of their staff were on a routine visit and the Sellafield staff informed them then.

21 April

The NII informs the RPII of the leak.

12 May

Twenty-one days later, the NII informs the RPII that the leak has been upgraded to the status of a serious incident. An Phoblacht asked a spokesperson for BNG about the incident. First, they stressed the lack of danger to the general public, as the radioactive liquid was contained in steel-lined chamber, with walls two metres thick. However, this is also what makes it so difficult for BNG to find a way to safely contain the liquid.

We asked how would the closure of the plant affect THORP's operations we were told that the plant would have been shut down at this time of year for planned maintenance of "six or seven weeks".

When asked why it took so long to upgrade the status of the Sellafield accident in the plant, the spokesperson said: "It's not something you walk up to." He maintained the BNG was "working to get the plant reopened". When asked how long would this take, the spokesperson replied that it was difficult to gauge, adding helpfully: "How long is a piece of string?"

13 May

The RPII releases a press statement after the British Nuclear Installations Inspectorate reveals the seriousness of the accident has risen to what is called a level 3 on the International Nuclear Event Scale (INES). This is a scale developed by the International Atomic Energy Agency like the Richter measure for earthquakes. It gives the general public an understanding of the nature of the incident.

The Nuclear Event Scale runs from 0 to 7 and the leak at Sellafield is a 3, which is what they term a "serious incident" but with no offsite risk.

For comparison sake, Chernobyl was a seven, the 1957 Windscale fire and the 1979 Three Mile Island emergency were rated five.

An Phoblacht also spoke to the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate about what was happening at Sellafield. They couldn't explain how it took the BNG two days before informing them of the incident on the afternoon of the 20th, but it is clear that once informed they acted promptly.

What they did tell us and which has been confirmed by the RPII is that the BNG is increasing the transformation of nuclear waste into the more stable glass blocks with radioactive material stored as solids inside them.

However, in the absence of what the NII called a national storage facility, all of this "legacy waste" will remain in storage at Sellafield.

Ann McGarry, RPII chief executive, told An Phoblacht t

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
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