March 2002

Selling Sellafield

Irish Sunday Business Post , Dublin, Ireland, 24 February, 2002
By Susan Mitchell

[Posted 06/03/2002]

Radioactive waste, cancer, Dundalk, Down's syndrome, court actions, terrorist threats. The name Sellafield has become inextricably linked in 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 — is the 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 the most contentious from an Irish perspective. The main activities carried out at 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, utterly useless, as well as dirty and dangerous".

Sellafield, formerly known as Windscale, has been operating for more than 40 years and has dumped tonnes of radioactive material into the Irish Sea.

While reports claiming that the Irish Sea is the most radioactive in the world are untrue, radionuclides from Sellafield have been found in fish, seaweed and shellfish. Recent reports claim that BNFL is not adhering to 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 a cluster of babies with Down's syndrome, born to mothers who attended the 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 exposure to radiation associated with some infection had an adverse influence".

But Askew is adamant that there is no link to the Dundalk cases. He points to a recent study -- partly funded by the Irish North-Eastern Health Board -- which concluded that "chance is the most likely explanation" for the cluster.

Although the report received little airing in Ireland, Askew stops short of criticising Irish politicians for failing to allay the public's concerns. "I'm long past trying to tell politicians how to go about their business," he laughs.

It has been claimed that the cancer rate in Louth runs at 14 per cent above 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 a 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 plant.

Other reports have claimed that children with fathers working at Sellafield are more likely to develop cancer. However, these were dismissed by the Leukaemia Research Fund in 1999.

Askew denies that residents of Cumbria have suffered ill-health as a result of activities at Sellafield. "No direct link has ever been proven. If you go to the local community around Sellafield, it is not even an issue," he insists.

Greenpeace counters that reporting has been repressed in Cumbria due to the nuclear industry's economic hold on the county.

Suggestions that BNFL compensates all workers who develop cancer -- a policy that would imply that workers suffer an increased risk of developing cancer -- are denied by Askew. Compensation, he claims, is only given to 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 to last them a lifetime," he says.

"Everything has to be put in perspective and it is a fact that airline crews receive a higher dosage of radiation than our workers, as the closer you are to the outer atmosphere, the higher the radiation dose."

Askew takes a softer line on the contentious issue of radioactive waste. "I 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 in authority, this industry should be assessed on the facts.

"We are constantly striving to have minimal emissions, but it is difficult to conceive of any industrial activity that has zero emissions." He adds that recent reports claiming that emission levels from Sellafield were not adhering to the Ospar agreement were "quite simply untrue".

"We are fully committed to meeting the targets of the agreement. It is absolutely inconceivable that we would breach those guidelines. The British 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 20 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. The report found that exposure to radioactivity arising from swimming in the sea was "negligible", and that the radiation dose to seafood consumers "represents no more than a fraction of 1 per cent of a person's total radiation dose from all sources".

Science has shown that airline passengers experience more exposure to 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 on the environment. Should someone throw rubbish into your garden, it may not harm you in any way but the act itself would be deemed unacceptable."

Sellafield raises fears other than exposure to its waste products. The 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 good.

"If you look at the overall history of the nuclear industry, there are two events that are regularly discussed. One is Three Mile Island and the other is Chernobyl. The reactors used at Chernobyl would never have been built in the West."

The RPII regards the possibility of an event leading to a major release with greater concern. "The likelihood of a Chernobyl-type incident is relatively low as the reactors are intrinsically safer, but some of the reactors are highly visible from the air and the impact of a deliberate act of terrorism is worrying," said Chris Hone, principal scientist at the RPII.

The events of September 11, coupled with the Wise-Paris report, have raised another, terrifying spectre: a terrorist air attack.

While it is claimed that the existing installations could withstand the 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. "We have reviewed everything and there are some steps that we have taken and are 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 flight 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 with nuclear installations and are considered a necessary precaution by many in the scientific community.

While Askew claims that BNFL's operating procedures are stringent, such assertions may not wash with the general public. The company was severely embarrassed when an employee leaked details of falsified records to the media, and the company was fined in June and October 2000 for breaching safety regulations.

Former chief executive John Taylor resigned in the wake of these reports, and such conduct, albeit dubbed "insanity by a very small number of people", casts doubt on the company's credibility.

Restoring confidence in the nuclear giant's long-term viability will prove 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 for some time.

A commentator at New Scientist recently described the organisation as being "up the creek without a paddle".

The British government intervened in December with the announcement that it would establish a new Liabilities Management Authority to take responsibility for Britain's nuclear waste, including everything owned and 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 taxpayer.

Askew believes such a move was inevitable: "BNFL could not continue to have all the government's historic liabilities on its balance sheet. It meant we had liabilities of stg£34 billion and a net worth of between stg£300 and 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 that 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 the US -- 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 BNFL has reprocessing contracts that run to 2010.

"We have two sorts of customers: nuclear utilities and governments, such as that of Britain and the US. We decommission sites and reprocess fuel. There 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 nuclear power in the future? Askew is adamant that we will.

"I have absolutely no doubt about it and I believe that new reactors will 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. A low carbon future and the Kyoto targets can only be delivered with nuclear generation and renewables contributing in tandem as part of a broad energy mix."

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" meet our energy demands, while a source at International Energy Agency was adamant that renewables must be encouraged, but said he was "unaware of any credible study that has examined the possibility of renewables meeting all of our energy needs".

While the nuclear industry continues to fight its corner around the globe, 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 today.

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