24 February 2000 Edition

Resize: A A A Print

The case against the British nuclear industry

Last week's admittance by British Nuclear Fuels Ltd (BNFL) that it had falsified quality control records came as a shock to the Irish public. It confirmed decades of fears about the management and safety of the British nuclear industry.

  The Sellafield management, BNFL and the British government now have no shred of credibility in their defence of the continued operation of the Sellafield plant  
Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin

Indeeed, it is only the latest installment in a damning litany of mistakes made and lies told by BNFL to not only the British and Irish people but also to the British, Irish, Japanese and German governments.

Nobody comes well out of the Sellafield saga. Neither the British nor the Dublin governments, the EU nor British Nuclear Fuels themselves. Throughout the last five years, there is ample of evidence of an industry that has at best misled the public and government about the economic viability of its operations and is at worst threatening to unleash an environmental catastrophe.


A report by the British Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science found that more than one third of the plutonium dumped in the Irish Sea is ``unaccounted for''.

In May, the electricity supply failed at the nuclear facility in Dounreay, Scotland. There was a 12-hour delay in declaring an emergency. Harmful material could have been released from its chimneys. The Scottish Environmental Protection Agency found the cause of the power cut was ``sloppy management'' and ``outdated equipment''.

The waste stored at Sellafield was ``one of the world's most dangerous'' sites.
Also in May, a research study by British Nuclear Free Local Authorities found that the THORP facility could lose more than £100 million annually.

In June, the Institute for Resources and Security Studies described the waste storage facility at Sellafield as ``one of the world's most dangerous'' sites. In the same month, it was revealed that 170 kilos of weapons-grade uranium was missing from Dounreay.

BNFL has falsified documentation for its two largest customers
A report by the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland in July found that radioactive levels on the Irish east coast were 30 times greater that they were in 1994. In August, toxic plutonium was released inside a laboratory at Sellafield after an accident.

In September 1998, a British newspaper revealed that an expert report used to justify the economic viability of the £2.8 billion THORP reprocessing facility at Sellafield had never existed.

Christmas came early for Europe's nuclear industry as the EU gave £891 million to the industry to ``improve the competitiveness and acceptability of Europe's nuclear power industry''. A Dublin government minister claimed to have tried to keep the aid as ``low as possible''.

In the same month, the British Health and Safety Authority found that Sellafield's stockpile of nuclear waste, the largest in Europe, was in danger of leaking. The stores that contained the waste were ``crumbling''.


In January, a serious blow to the economic viability of BNFL's THORP plant was dealt by the German government, which announced a timetable to end reprocessing of its spent nuclear fuel. The German government was to shut down its 19 reactors. This meant a financial loss of £1 billion to BNFL. THORP's revenue for its first ten years of operations was supposed to be £12 billion, so the German decision was a setback.

In February, it was revealed that plutonium was seeping into the Thames from the British government's atomic weapons factory at Aldermaston.

In May, it was reported that Nukem Nuclear Ltd, a company that had cleared the safety of BNFL's procedures for transporting nuclear fuel, had business links with BNFL.

An independent report commissioned by BNFL and published in June showed that reprocessing of nuclear fuel was an ``obsolete'' activity and three times as expensive as storage.

In the same month, a report from the Committee on Medical Aspects of Radiation in the Environment found that pigeon droppings from birds that had nested in Sellafield had contaminated a garden two miles away with nuclear waste.

The Labour government in Britain announced in August 1999 its plans to partially privatise BNFL in the next two years

In November, the Dublin government expressed its disappointment at the size of proposed reductions in radioactive discharges into the sea by BNFL. Some radioactive discharges from Sellafield were actually going to increase.

The Japanese Kansai Electric company rejected a shipment of plutonium from BNFL in December. Kansai said BNFL was untrustworthy. It believed that safety data had been falsified.


The debacle over falsified records continued when it was revealed that more quality control documents were falsified, this time it was for consignments of reprocessed fuel sent to Germany. This meant that BNFL had falsified documentation for its two largest customers.

The other failure of the British nuclear industry so far this year has been that the British government has still not produced a plan to show how radioactive discharges in the north Atlantic by the nuclear industry will be reduced. The Labour administration had signed an international agreement on discharge reduction in 1998 and had promised a substantial reduction commitment'' for this year.

Sellafield and Britain's nuclear industry

Sellafield is the site name for a vast and growing array of plants on the coast of Cumbria, barely 65 miles from the Irish coast. Apart from being a nuclear power station, there are two nuclear fuel reprocessing plants THORP and MOX as well as 70,000 cubic metres of spent nuclear fuel, only 15% of which is in a passive safe state. BNFL employ 2,500 people at the site.

In 1990, during the Dublin government's tenure of the EU presidency, former Fianna Fáil leader Albert Reynolds signed the directive authorising the EU's £2.8 billion low-cost loan to BNFL which built THORP.

Sellafield is also home to the now defunct but still radioactive Windscale nuclear power station. It is unclear when or how the former power station will be dismantled.

Current activity at the MOX plant represents 7% of the total business BNFL was hoping to attract. Orders for the period 2004 to 2014 are only 43% of the plant's capacity.

There are currently 32 operating nuclear reactors in Britain and 20% of the power supply is nuclear generated.

O Caoláin and Morgan call for Sellafield to be shut down

Sinn Féin TD Caoimhghín O Caolain and Louth County Councillor Arthur Morgan have called on the Dublin government to act and seek the closure of Sellafield.

O Caoláin said: ``The Sellafield management, BNFL and the British government now have no shred of credibility in their defence of the continued operation of the Sellafield plant.

``It is not enough for Irish Minister of State Joe Jacob to be sending polite letters to his British counterpart. Sellafield represents a potential Chernobyl and must be dealt with at the highest level.''

Councillor Morgan called on the Dublin government to ``state clearly that they want to see this plant closed''. He also questioned why Noel Dempsey and Dermot Ahern, two Fianna Fáil ministers from the North East, have not come out demanding the closure of Sellafield''.

Bernard Moffat of the Celtic League said in a statement that the ``unfolding scandal'' cast a doubt over ``the validity of information provided by BNFL ``on a range of other accidents and incidents at Sellafield''.

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1

Powered by Phoenix Media Group