May 2003

£100m needed to fix Sellafield's leaky roof

The Guardian, 27 May 2003
By David Hencke and Rob Evans

Original address:,3605,963867,00.html

[Posted 26/05/2003]

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 further use."

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 them."

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."

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