9 September 2004 Edition

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Sellafield 'Simpsons' stories


In a scenario straight out of the Simpsons, BNFL's Sellafield site came under fire from two sources this week as the EU Commission and the British Environment Agency both highlighted serious health and safety flaws in the site's operations.

The EU Commission are to bring the British Government to the European Court of Justice over their Sellafield safety failures, while Sinn Féin MEP Mary Lou McDonald said that the legal action proposed by the European Commission against the British Government "should provide the catalyst for the permanent closure of the plant".

However, it will be some time before the case comes to court Below we summarise BNFL's two chronologies of failures, backsliding and endangering the public.

Sellafield Chronology 1

1957: Britain signs Euratom Treaty

The treaty allows international inspectors enter nuclear facilities and check if nuclear material is being stored safely

1959: British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL) builds a concrete pond called B30 to store nuclear waste underwater. Originally the idea was to store uranium fuel rods from nuclear reactors but other material was put in without proper documentation about what was being dumped. Of the 1.3 tons of radioactive material, 400kg is corroded fuel sludge lying at the bottom of the open-air pond.

1986: The EU sends inspectors to Sellafield for the first ever visit under the 1957 Euratom Treaty.

1991: The EU begins annual inspections to B30. BNFL workers can spend no more than one hour daily working near the pond because of radiation. EU inspectors have therefore never been able to properly examine the pond.

2000: EU Energy Commissioner Loyola de Palacio begins the process of getting the British Government to fulfil its Euratom commitments to provide adequate information about the B30 pond.

2002 The EU Energy Commission produces new draft legislation on nuclear safety and management of radioactive waste. The British Government have blocked the legislation being implemented.

2004: Loyola de Palacio sets 1 June as the deadline for the British Government to produce a plan for dealing with the B30 waste.

3 September 2004: The EU Commission announces that it will be taking the British Government to the Court of Human Rights. The British Government had only produced a draft plan with according to de Palacio, "no clear timetable, no detail, no money". She said, "All we received from the British authorities was a draft; this is not a commitment at all".

A BNFL spokesperson said, "We're surprised that they've taken the decision to take legal action". The spokesperson also added, "We need to carefully consider the areas where the Commission has said that our plan is inadequate, they have given us a detailed list and we only got it today"(!) One wonders what they were doing for the past 45 years since waste was first dumped in the B30 pond.

Sellafield Chronology 2

1977: British Nuclear Fuels is given planning permission to build the THORP fuel reprocessing plant. Concerned about the health implications of Krypton 85 Gas emissions from the plant, Justice Parker stipulates that trapping equipment should be included in the design specifications.

1990: Albert Reynolds, then Fianna Fáil Finance Minister approves a £1.8 billion low cost loan to BNFL to build the THORP facility. Reynolds' name went on the approval, as the Irish Government were holders of the EU presidency at the time.

1994: THORP opens without any Krypton 85 trapping equipment installed. Up to 500 cubic metres of the gas has been released into the atmosphere every day since.

BNFL has been in a decade-long dispute since then with the British Environment Agency (EA) over their failure to comply with the original planning specifications. BNFL claimed that the technology did not exist to capture such a large volume of gas.

Other reprocessing plants have trapping facilities but their plants are not as large as THORP. To make Krypton 85 safe it must be stored under pressure in bottles for a century when it will cease to be radioactive. The EA did not accept the BNFL case and instructed BNFL to install trapping technology. The gas emissions from THORP are blamed for over 100 cancer cases annually in Britain.

2004: BNFL says it will cost £300 million to develop the technology for capturing Krypton 85. The EA puts the price at £75 million. They believe that BNFL could also capture a commercially useful gas xenon, used in car head lights and double glazing. This could, according to the EA, earn BNFL £50 million annually.

THORP will now probably close in 2010. BNFL has been given until October to respond to the EA recommendations. One of the BNFL objections is that it is "potentially dangerous to workers" to store the gas under pressure for prolonged periods".

Go back to Sellafield Chronology One!

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