September 2001

Sellafield shuts plants as N-waste builds up

Special report: Britain's nuclear industry <>

The Guardian <>, Saturday September 22, 2001
By Paul Brown, environment correspondent

[Posted 24/09/2001]

Both giant nuclear fuel reprocessing plants at Sellafield in Cumbria, which employ more than 4,000 people, were shut down yesterday after it became clear that volumes of high level nuclear waste were reaching unacceptable levels.

Government regulators, the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate, have been critical of state-owned British Nuclear Fuels for its failure to deal with heat producing waste, the most dangerous material stored at the plant.

Earlier this week, Sellafield was identified as a potential terrorist target following the attack on New York.

Despite many attempts to reduce the amount of liquid waste, the plant which turns the waste into more manageable glass blocks, has broken down repeatedly. It has been out of operation most of this year. None of the three production lines in this vitrification plant are currently working and the amount of waste is rising, instead of falling as the regulators have demanded.

The two reprocessing works deal with spent fuel from Britain's nuclear reactors and from customers in Japan, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, Spain and Italy. Staff will not be laid off, but halting production will seriously damage the profitability of the company.

Foreign customers are already angry at Sellafield's failure to deal with their contracts in time. This has caused a 10% increase in costs, running into many millions of pounds, which is passed on to BNFL customers.

The company was warned again in August that unless it reduced the amount of waste in holding tanks - currently more than 1,550 cubic metres- by 35 cubic metres for the next 14 years the NII would close the plant. This year the amount of waste held has already increased by more than 100 cubic metres.

Yesterday, the company said it had closed both reprocessing plants for maintenance. Reopening of the two plants, which are the main money spinner for BNFL, depends on getting the vitrification plant running properly, something it has not achieved since it opened 11 years ago.

It has only achieved 34% of potential production in a decade, leading to such a build-up of dangerous wastes that the Irish government has protested to Britain about the threat to its citizens posed by the highly volatile liquid.

Yesterday, a spokesman for BNFL said the company hoped to have two of the three vitrification lines open next month and the third is due to be commissioned by the end of the year.

Martin Forwood, from Cumbrians Opposed to Radioactive Environment, said: "It is clear BNFL have jumped before they were pushed and shut the plants down rather than face legal sanction. The company is already years behind on its production schedules and has some very angry customers. This will make matters worse."

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