needed to fix Sellafield's leaky roof
The Guardian, 27 May 2003
By David Hencke and Rob Evans
Original address: http://www.guardian.co.uk/guardianpolitics/story/0,3605,963867,00.html
Cabinet ministers have been warned that a £100m
package is urgently required to protect public safety at Sellafield
and prevent a radioactive leak from a 50-year-old facility which stores
waste before it is released into the Irish sea.
The confidential written warning - seen by the Guardian
after it was leaked to Norman Baker, the Liberal Democrat spokesman
on the environment - was sent this year by Sir John Harman, chairman
of the environment agency, to Margaret Beckett, the environment secretary,
and Alan Milburn, the health secretary.
It reveals that British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL) wants
to increase dumping of Technetium-99 (Tc-99), a stored radioactive chemical,
into the Irish sea until 2007 to avoid spending the money.
The move has already angered the Irish government,
which has complained to the prime minister, Tony Blair, and also the
Norwegian government, which has lobbied Michael Meacher, the environment
minister. Norway wants a moratorium on discharges of the chemical, claiming
it is damaging valuable fishing industries.
The letter reveals that the health and safety executive
and the nuclear installations inspectorate have required BNFL "to
carry out a roof assessment [of the storage facility] and to put in
place contingency planning should the facility be declared unfit for
The letter continues: "Recent work... has indicated
that the load-bearing capacity in part of the roof has weakened and
that there is some corrosion of the stressing steel in the structural
beams. In the light of these findings, HSE has highlighted the need
for more assessment for the next six months, and requires BNFL to have
a contingency plan should the existing structure start to deteriorate."
The letter says BNFL has estimated that fixing the
roof would cost £100m and a replacement facility would cost £300m.
The letter also reveals that technology put in place
to make the stored radioactive Tc-99 environmentally safe has failed
to work properly, and therefore the only solution is to dump the remaining
stock into the sea before new restrictions come into force in 2007.
The environment agency has backed BNFL in saying
that it cannot agree to a moratorium under these circumstances and has
left ministers to make up their minds.
Mr Baker said yesterday: "Given the huge diplomatic
row over this, it is extraordinary that BNFL's solution is just to dump
the stuff into the sea and also to claim that there is no safety problem
on the site. Given their record of previous reassurances, I do not believe
Pete Roche, a nuclear specialist with Greenpeace,
said: "Margaret Beckett needs to bang heads together. Nirex [a
waste management body], the nuclear installations inspectorate, the
environment agency and BNFL all appear to be working against the minister's
clear desire to see an early end to Technetium-99 discharges. If the
abatement process currently under investigation doesn't work, then another
process needs to be developed... the UK cannot continue to use the sea
as a short-cut, cheap solution to problems of its own making."
BNFL said in a statement: "The building at
Sellafield is routinely inspected by BNFL and poses no immediate safety
concerns. In BNFL's view, a replacement facility is not warranted. The
building is now approximately 50 years old and as such cannot be expected
to conform to the standards expected of a modern plant. While being
demonstrably safe, it is clear that action is required to remove the
bulk of the radioactive inventory over the next few years. BNFL is committed
to taking this action, and a moratorium would be contrary to this."