Irish Sunday Business Post , Dublin, Ireland,
24 February, 2002
By Susan Mitchell
Radioactive waste, cancer, Dundalk, Down's syndrome,
terrorist threats. The name Sellafield has become inextricably linked
Irish minds with all of the above. An eyesore on the Cumbrian coastline,
Sellafield is the ultimate unwelcome neighbour: dirty, contributes nothing
to the area and poses an unquantifiable security risk.
The man with the unenviable task of countering these allegations and
presiding over this debt-ridden company -- currently being sued by the
Irish government and a group of residents from Dundalk, Co Louth —
chief executive of British Nuclear Fuels Limited (BNFL), Norman Askew.
Askew usually shies away from interviews and I expected him to be cold,
distant and removed. In fact, he is humorous, open and remarkably
down-to-earth. While keen to assuage Irish fears over his company's
operations, he is unapologetic about his pro-nuclear stance and quite
dismissive of what he describes as the "erroneous reports"
on which much of
the media coverage of Sellafield is based.
While BNFL has operations throughout Britain, Sellafield is easily
contentious from an Irish perspective. The main activities carried out
the site include reprocessing and recycling of used nuclear fuel from
Britain and abroad, and managing the waste that is produced.
Environmentalists describe the plant as a "nuclear dustbin"
and argue that
dry storage is a much safer option than reprocessing spent fuel.
Mark Johnston of Greenpeace describes reprocessing as "expensive,
useless, as well as dirty and dangerous".
Sellafield, formerly known as Windscale, has been operating for more
40 years and has dumped tonnes of radioactive material into the Irish
While reports claiming that the Irish Sea is the most radioactive in
world are untrue, radionuclides from Sellafield have been found in fish,
seaweed and shellfish. Recent reports claim that BNFL is not adhering
the Ospar agreement, which stipulates that signatories take all possible
steps to prevent and eliminate marine pollution.
Louth residents -- who live only 100 miles from the site -- have spent
years campaigning for the closure of Sellafield. It is suggested that
cluster of babies with Down's syndrome, born to mothers who attended
same secondary school in Dundalk, cannot be the result of chance.
A report by Irish scientist Patricia Sheehan, published in the British
Medical Journal, concluded with the "nagging doubt that possible
to radiation associated with some infection had an adverse influence".
But Askew is adamant that there is no link to the Dundalk cases. He
to a recent study -- partly funded by the Irish North-Eastern Health
-- which concluded that "chance is the most likely explanation"
Although the report received little airing in Ireland, Askew stops
criticising Irish politicians for failing to allay the public's concerns.
"I'm long past trying to tell politicians how to go about their
It has been claimed that the cancer rate in Louth runs at 14 per cent
the national average and that there is an increased incidence of childhood
cancer in the area.
A group of local residents is suing BNFL on the grounds that they suffer
higher risk of cancer because of its operations at Sellafield.
Such claims are not, however, supported by recent cancer statistics
compiled by the Department of Health and Askew vehemently rejects them.
However, the claims continue to mount. A significant excess of childhood
cancer around Sellafield was highlighted in the recent Wise-Paris report,
which had been commissioned by the European Parliament.
In 1983, a documentary called Windscale: The Nuclear Laundry, suggested
that an excess of leukaemia afflicted children in villages near the
Other reports have claimed that children with fathers working at Sellafield
are more likely to develop cancer. However, these were dismissed by
Leukaemia Research Fund in 1999.
Askew denies that residents of Cumbria have suffered ill-health as
of activities at Sellafield. "No direct link has ever been proven.
go to the local community around Sellafield, it is not even an issue,"
Greenpeace counters that reporting has been repressed in Cumbria due
nuclear industry's economic hold on the county.
Suggestions that BNFL compensates all workers who develop cancer --
policy that would imply that workers suffer an increased risk of developing
cancer -- are denied by Askew. Compensation, he claims, is only given
workers "in the event of an industrial accident".
"The Sellafield workforce is probably one of the most epidemiologically
studied workforces in the world. Should you talk to one of their
representatives, they would probably say they have had enough tests
them a lifetime," he says.
"Everything has to be put in perspective and it is a fact that
crews receive a higher dosage of radiation than our workers, as the
you are to the outer atmosphere, the higher the radiation dose."
Askew takes a softer line on the contentious issue of radioactive waste.
recognise that people have an issue with the waste. But, while I welcome
the fact that there is a scepticism of people in white coats and people
authority, this industry should be assessed on the facts.
"We are constantly striving to have minimal emissions, but it
to conceive of any industrial activity that has zero emissions."
that recent reports claiming that emission levels from Sellafield were
adhering to the Ospar agreement were "quite simply untrue".
"We are fully committed to meeting the targets of the agreement.
absolutely inconceivable that we would breach those guidelines. The
government signed up to it, and Blair and others couldn't position
themselves internationally were we to do that. We are continually monitored
and our overall emissions have decreased significantly over the last
years," he says.
Askew's assertions that the additional doses of radioactivity resulting
from activities at Sellafield are minute were reiterated in the
Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland's (RPII) annual report.
report found that exposure to radioactivity arising from swimming in
sea was "negligible", and that the radiation dose to seafood
"represents no more than a fraction of 1 per cent of a person's
radiation dose from all sources".
Science has shown that airline passengers experience more exposure
radioactivity in a single flight than would be caused by eating seafood
every day for a year.
The report goes on: "We accept that the doses are very small,
but it is
still a pollutant and we do have a concern about the long-term impact
the environment. Should someone throw rubbish into your garden, it may
harm you in any way but the act itself would be deemed unacceptable."
Sellafield raises fears other than exposure to its waste products.
potential threat from a mechanical failure at the plant is, for example,
unquantifiable. And the Windscale fire of 1957, which resulted in the
release of a large quantity of radioactivity into the atmosphere, proves
that such concerns are not without foundation.
Askew argues that the track record of the nuclear industry is fairly
"If you look at the overall history of the nuclear industry, there
events that are regularly discussed. One is Three Mile Island and the
is Chernobyl. The reactors used at Chernobyl would never have been built
The RPII regards the possibility of an event leading to a major release
with greater concern. "The likelihood of a Chernobyl-type incident
relatively low as the reactors are intrinsically safer, but some of
reactors are highly visible from the air and the impact of a deliberate
of terrorism is worrying," said Chris Hone, principal scientist
The events of September 11, coupled with the Wise-Paris report, have
another, terrifying spectre: a terrorist air attack.
While it is claimed that the existing installations could withstand
impact of a small plane, a passenger jet could provoke a nuclear disaster
of epic proportions.
Askew is reluctant to divulge details of BNFL's security measures.
reviewed everything and there are some steps that we have taken and
taking. It would be foolish to divulge those measures, for obvious
reasons," he says.
BNFL and its sole shareholder, the British government, have not installed
ground-to-air missiles to provide anti-aircraft cover. This would seem
incomprehensible, given that an independent evaluation of commercial
paths showed that air traffic control would be unable to see a plane
deviate from its planned route in the area until it was about four minutes
away from Sellafield. Too late for the RAF to save the day.
Anti-aircraft batteries are now a permanent fixture in other countries
nuclear installations and are considered a necessary precaution by many
the scientific community.
While Askew claims that BNFL's operating procedures are stringent,
assertions may not wash with the general public. The company was severely
embarrassed when an employee leaked details of falsified records to
media, and the company was fined in June and October 2000 for breaching
Former chief executive John Taylor resigned in the wake of these reports,
and such conduct, albeit dubbed "insanity by a very small number
people", casts doubt on the company's credibility.
Restoring confidence in the nuclear giant's long-term viability will
a challenge. Although Tony Blair's government has said it may privatise
shares in BNFL in 2004, the company has been in dire financial straits
A commentator at New Scientist recently described the organisation
"up the creek without a paddle".
The British government intervened in December with the announcement
would establish a new Liabilities Management Authority to take
responsibility for Britain's nuclear waste, including everything owned
run by BNFL.
This means that BNFL will be stripped of its assets, as well as its
liabilities, and these will fall directly into the ownership of the
Askew believes such a move was inevitable: "BNFL could not continue
all the government's historic liabilities on its balance sheet. It meant
had liabilities of stg£34 billion and a net worth of between stg£300
stg£500 million. Many of these liabilities were created before
BNFL and I
know of no other case in the world where a plc had all of the nation's
liabilities on its balance sheet," he said.
While Askew is evidently delighted by the move, it is widely believed
the billion pound flagship Thorp plant and the yet-to-be-opened Mox
plutonium plant at Sellafield will never be commercially viable. The
estimate for the cost of dismantling the nuclear dream is about ?120
billion -- most of it incurred at Sellafield.
Recent acquisitions of nuclear businesses -- Westinghouse and ABB in
-- mean the company now operates in 15 countries and employs more than
23,000 people. Although nuclear energy provides around a quarter of
Britain's energy needs, analysts say the future is far from rosy.
While Askew concedes that there is little demand for Mox fuel, he says
has reprocessing contracts that run to 2010.
"We have two sorts of customers: nuclear utilities and governments,
that of Britain and the US. We decommission sites and reprocess fuel.
is a huge market for decommissioning sites and we have enormous experience
in that area."
Perhaps one of the most pertinent questions is whether we will need
power in the future? Askew is adamant that we will.
"I have absolutely no doubt about it and I believe that new reactors
be built in Britain. There are clear dividends to be gained from using
nuclear energy instead of fossil fuels, as it is virtually free of
greenhouse gas emissions.
"Nobody has proven that modern economies can be run without baseload
plants, and nuclear is the only one that doesn't cause global warming.
low carbon future and the Kyoto targets can only be delivered with nuclear
generation and renewables contributing in tandem as part of a broad
There is, however, a lack of consensus on the possibility of renewable
resources meeting the worldwide demand for energy. Mark Johnston, a
spokesman for Greenpeace, claims renewable resources "can and must"
our energy demands, while a source at International Energy Agency was
adamant that renewables must be encouraged, but said he was "unaware
credible study that has examined the possibility of renewables meeting
of our energy needs".
While the nuclear industry continues to fight its corner around the
Britain continues to gain from its nuclear installations. But the Irish
dilemma remains: nothing to gain but everything to lose.
SATURDAY 23/02/02 17:44:46
Call to close Sellafield Ulster TV Internet
The Sellafield nuclear power plant should be closed after a series of
staggering accusations about its safety record, a Fianna Fail TD said