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11 October 2007 Edition

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50th anniversary of nuclear fire shows worse results than were first expected

Sellafield must be closed down


THE 50th anniversary of Britain’s worst nuclear accident ever occurred on Wednesday of this week in tandem with the results of new research that show the effects of this accident may be far worse than originally expected.
The accident occurred in 1957 in the Windscale plant, since renamed Sellafield. Graphite rods, which were used to control reactions in the core of the nuclear plant, caught fire and were alight for two days before the fire was contained. It was reported that workers even attempted to use sledgehammers to knock the radioactive damaged fuel rods out of the reactor before the fire was put out.
This accident resulted in a cloud of radioactivity emerging over England and spreading to as far as northern Europe and may have caused up to dozens more cases of cancer than were thought to have been caused by the accident originally. Scientists who specialise in nuclear research have released the results of a study in which they identified levels of radioactive material through wind patterns in the years after 1957 and said that previous studies have played down the levels of radioactivity previously identified.
John Garland, who formerly acted as a researcher for the Atomic Energy Authority, conducted the study alongside Professor Richard Wakeford of Manchester University. They have said that the level of radioactive debris may be twice as much as originally thought and caused over 240 cases of cancer across Britain than research had previously shown.
Epidemiogical studies previously conducted by radiation experts in 1990 had shown that at least 200 cases of leukemia, breast and thyroid cancer had been caused by the 1957 Windscale fire. It is Garland and Wakeford’s research, in the current edition of Atmospheric Environment, that shows an increase in the level of cancers now:
“Several dozen more cancer cases may have to be added to our total... An excess in cancer cases was caused by the fire.”
The study conducted involved a re-examination of air, winds, and vegetation in 1957 combined with computer models to show how winds would have spread at that time.
After the fire, the British Government placed a six-week ban on the consumption of milk produced by cows within a 200-mile radius of the Windscale plant even though weather conditions at the time showed that levels of nuclear activity travelled across England and northern Europe. The reactor that originally caught fire has lain idle and undisturbed for the past 50 years at Sellafield as it is deemed too dangerous to decommission. However, media reports have said that the British authorities are planning to extract 15 tonnes of damaged fuel rods from the 1957 fire at a cost of £500 million (€722 million) to the British taxpayer.
Dundalk, County Louth, is geographically the nearest town in Ireland to the Sellafield plant and it has seen a rise in cancer rates and birth defects to 12 per cent above the average for the state in the immediate years to 1957, even though many British scientists have claimed that the radioactive discharge from the fire would have been blown away from Ireland by the prevailing winds. An academic from University College Dublin, Professor Peter Mitchell, carried out a study on behalf of UCD. He said that the outer edge of the cloud of radioactive discharge may have reached the east coast of Ireland.  Residents in Dundalk and the surrounding areas have consistently claimed that the higher rates in cancer and Down Syndrome can be attributed to Sellafield with a group of locals even going so far as to take legal action against British Nuclear Fuels, who run Sellafield, which lasted more than a decade.
The new research findings seem an appropriate 50th anniversary gift for the British Government – which is in the process of wrapping up its public consultation on building more nuclear reactors across Britain – from the environmental campaigners who are active on the issue of closing down Sellafield. Jean McSorley of Greenpeace said:
“This anniversary should act as a reminder of what can happen when a nuclear plant goes wrong. The Windscale plant’s construction was rushed and so are the government’s plans for new reactors in this country. Nuclear energy is not the answer to climate change.”                          
Foreign Affairs Minister Dermot Ahern – born in Drogheda, educated in Dundalk and a TD for Louth – has said the findings of the Garland and Wakeford research are “extremely worrying” and he has previously committed to lobbying the British Government for the permanent closure of the Sellafiled plant. Despite this, the Irish Government has never made any meaningful or substantial progress on the issue which most would consider to be of great importance given the latest research. Dermot Ahern was scheduled to meet British Foreign Secretary David Milliband this week. A spokesperson for the Dublin minister said, “He will try and raise the issue with him if he can,” reflecting the sparse level of commitment the 26-County Government has to the issue, even with the Green Party in power.
Enthusiasts of nuclear power in Britain have rejected the findings of the research, saying that the accident had no implications for future reactors that may be built there as it did not have the correct system for monitoring conditions in the nuclear plant’s core.  Paul Howarth, a nuclear engineer of the Dalton Nuclear Institute of Manchester University, said: “We have vast experience in running nuclear plants in Britain. It would be daft if we used this as a reason for building new and better ones.”
Howarth did not mention the dangerous leakage that occurred in Sellafield in 2005 when 20 tonnes of uranium and plutonium dissolved in nitric acid and leaked through a cracked pipe into a stainless steel chamber. The Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland, the state’s nuclear watchdog, has warned that the plant will pose a major threat for at least another 150 years.
Martin Ferris TD, Sinn Féin spokesperson on Environment, reacted to the research by reiterating Sinn Féin’s demands to shut the nuclear plant at Sellafield immediately:
“The news that nuclear debris released during a fire at Sellafield in 1957 was up to twice the volume previously thought will come as no big surprise to many Irish people who are used to lies and deceit from successive British governments. Irish people have been living with the consequences of that fire for many years with particularly high rates of cancer and birth defects in County Louth and South Down.
“Sinn Féin has consistently called for the closure of the Sellafield plant as it is a discredited plant and it remains the most dangerous and unstable nuclear facility in Western Europe. Sinn Féin will continue to fight for its immediate closure.”

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