July 2003

Fears over Sellafield’s ‘dirty’ pond

Sunday Herald, 13 July 2003
By Rob Edwards, Environment Editor

Original address: http://www.sundayherald.com/35261

[Posted 15/07/2003]

Leaked report reveals discrepancies in estimates of amount of nuclear material put in open pool

Huge discrepancies in estimates of how much plutonium, uranium and radioactive waste was placed in an open pond at the Sellafield nuclear complex have alarmed the European Union’s safety watchdog. Confidential documents leaked to the Sunday Herald reveal that British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL), the state-owned company than runs the Cumbrian plant, has no clear idea how much nuclear material is in the pond. It only takes a few kilograms of plutonium to make a nuclear bomb capable of wiping out a city. Official estimates for uranium metal in the pond range between 300 and 450 tonnes.

As a result, inspectors from the EU’s Euratom Safeguards Agency are worried they are unable to verify that Sellafield’s plutonium is not being diverted for use in weapons. This guarantee is at the heart of international attempts to stem the spread of nuclear weapons to countries like Iraq, Iran and North Korea.

Critics point out that Britain’s failure to control hundreds of tonnes of nuclear materials makes a mockery of its insistence that other countries take good care of every gram. “Britain, as an existing nuclear power, can play fast and loose with the safeguards authorities,” alleged Dr David Lowry, an expert nuclear consultant.

The revelations are now to be raised with the EU by the Green MEP for Leinster in Ireland, Nuala Ahern. “This is another example of Sellafield’s serious mismanagement, which frightens so many people in Ireland,” she said.

The Sellafield pond, known officially as B30 and unofficially as ‘dirty thirty’, was built in 1959 to store and unpack uranium fuel rods burnt in Britain’s first generation of military and civil reactors.

The water was used to cool the hot fuel and to shield workers from its intense radiation. After some fuel started corroding in the 1970s, the pond was phased out and eventually closed down in 1992. But it has been left with a huge legacy of nuclear waste under the water, which is slowly leaking into the surrounding air and earth.

The secret BNFL report discloses the major problems the company has had in identifying exactly what is still in the pond.

“There is a large uncertainty to this figure arising from corrosion losses, historical errors and [the fact that] at various times during the operational life, skips have been toppled, losing their contents to the pond floor,” says the report.

“Individual elements have also fallen from various process operations. Poor pond visibility and accumulated sludge in the pond make it difficult to retrieve spilt fuel and undertake visual inspections.”

Fuel rods have been in the water for so long that most of their magnesium alloy cladding has rotted away. “Corrosion of the uranium has significantly reduced individual rod weights and in the extreme may have reduced some rods to little more than shards of metal.”

Along with the uranium, the pond contains significant amounts of plutonium, as well as a host of other radioactive wastes like caesium and strontium. It is all meant to be under strict safeguards and inspected by Euratom to provide an assurance that it is only used for civil purposes.

The aim is to demonstrate good faith to countries like Iran and North Korea, which are both currently suspected of using their civil nuclear programmes as a cover for making nuclear weapons. It is part of the deal enshrined in the international Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which came into force in 1970 to try to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons.

But the leaked BNFL report reveals: “The uncertainty surrounding the total inventory of B30 is a cause for concern with Euratom. This variance must be resolved at the earliest opportunity.”

The report, dated 1999, is marked ‘BNFL only’ on every page. “This document is ‘BNFL only’ because it contains undeclared details of B30 fuel inventory discrepancy and also commercially sensitive information,” it states.

The report also divulges that the pond contains spent fuel from the Tokai Mura reactor in Japan, a country that has historically been anxious to ensure a clear distinction between nuclear power and nuclear weapons. But, claims Lowry, the pond’s “murky mixture” must have made it “impossible for Euratom to ensure the segregation of civil and military material”.

BNFL insists that Euratom is satisfied there is no evidence that nuclear material is being diverted for defence purposes. “In fact in recent years the amount of nuclear materials under safeguards has increased as material surplus to defence requirements has been brought into safeguards following the 1998 strategic defence review,” said a company spokesman.

But in its latest report on safeguards in Europe, Euratom concluded that there was "an important verification problem" with the storage of some plutonium at Sellafield. “Difficulties of access and handling due to radiation protection and safety reasons do not permit full routine safeguards activities to be performed. However, the status quo was preserved by containment and surveillance systems,” the report said.

BNFL accepted that radiation was seeping through cracks in the concrete walls of the B30 pond and was being blown into the air from the water’s surface. But the levels were very low and had “no significant impact off the Sellafield site”, it claimed.

The company has refused to publish any detailed information on the structural flaws of B30 for fear the information could be of use to terrorists. It has been accused by former UK environment minister, Michael Meacher, of using security considerations to cover up environmental risks.

The problems surrounding B30 have also upset local environmentalists. “We are very worried at the chronic state of this 44-year-old store with its cocktail of corroded and highly radioactive sludges,” said Martin Forwood, campaign coordinator with Cumbrians Opposed to a Radioactive Environment (CORE).

“Even more frightening is that Euratom inspectors appear to be in the dark about exactly what’s in B30, so we’ll never know whether any plutonium or uranium has been diverted for weapons use.”

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