and dangerous, the legacy of a flawed nuclear vision
The Guardian, August 26, 2003
Original address: http://www.guardian.co.uk/nuclear/article/0,2763,1029372,00.html
Sellafield's building B277 is one of the UK's most
hazardous radioactive sites. Paul Brown is the first journalist to be
The plutonium contamination is intense inside the
old plant, where men are working in suits which look as if they were
designed for a space walk.
No one knows quite how bad conditions are because
the alpha radiation monitoring machine has gone off the dial at 99,000
counts a second - too high to measure. Outside the building in the Cumbrian
summer sunshine of Sellafield "normal" levels are five counts
The men are installing robots to cut up plutonium-
and uranium-contaminated machinery used in the 1970s and 80s to make
fuel for the long disused Dounreay experimental fast breeder reactor
After decades it is suddenly an urgent problem.
The plutonium is decaying into another even more dangerous substance,
americium. Unlike the plutonium radiation, which cannot penetrate the
suits, the gamma dose from the americium goes straight through into
the human body.
In charge of the project is 29-year-old Jeremy Hunt,
a mechanical engineer, who joined British Nuclear Fuels as a graduate
trainee and finds the problem of dismantling this highly contaminated
plant fascinating. Among other things, he has to juggle the workload
of the men inside the facility so that they do not exceed the maximum
permitted legal dose of radiation in any one year.
In theory there is enough plutonium inside the machines
still to be taken apart to go critical - that is, cause a nuclear meltdown.
Security is tight; it is a category A facility and no journalist has
been inside before.
"This is one of the most dangerous jobs anyone
could tackle; in theory there is still enough plutonium in there to
cause a criticality accident, but we are reasonably confident. We are
not having any exercises today, so follow me if the alarms go off,"
Mr Hunt said cheerily.
"What makes this job so interesting is that
this is a fantastic problem-solving job, every bit is different and
requires new techniques, specially adapted and built robots, because
we cannot expose men to this level of radiation."
BNFL began working on the dismantling of B277 building
10 years ago and has only now got to the difficult bit. Mr Hunt hopes
to have the problem solved by the time he is 33, in 2007.
But B277 is just one of Sellafield's problems. There
are 400 buildings on four square miles of the site which began life
as a TNT factory and evolved into a nuclear bomb factory.
Not far from B277 is B30 - a large open air pond
which leaks radioactive water through the joints when the cold weather
shrinks the concrete. It is having a secondary containment bund built
round it just in case a small earthquake is enough to split it open
and cause a major nuclear spillage. The place is rotting away and almost
everything is being replaced in order to dismantle it safely.
BNFL is trying to work out how to prevent seagulls
landing on the pond. About five a day do so on average, unwittingly
carrying away radiation which they subsequently distribute.
Leaning over the pond, peering into the murky depths,
while Mike Travis, head of ponds retrieval, points out spent nuclear
fuel rods dumped there, he becomes aware that the radiation monitor
on my chest is ticking rather fast. "Perhaps," he says, "we
should not stand here too long."
Outside, between B30 and the next building, are
additional lead shields to prevent people walking past getting a radiation
dose through the metre-thick walls. The highest radiation comes from
a defuelling bay used as a dump in the 70s. "In the miners' strike
we were told to run the Calder Hall reactors at full pelt to keep the
lights on, so people got a bit cavalier about the rubbish."
For years, Sellafield has been a byword for secrecy
and economy with the truth about the waste legacy. At last the reality
has caught up with the company - and the taxpayer - in the form of £41bn's
worth of liabilities, around £30bn of it at Sellafield.
In effect, the company became technically bankrupt,
forcing the government to step in. The Department of Trade and Industry
is creating a nuclear decommissioning authority to tackle the problem.
BNFL hopes to become the management company to carry on the clean-up,
which will run for the rest of this century. In total, including the
Ministry of Defence's so far unpublished problems, the taxpayer faces
a clean-up bill of £100m, a figure never previously disclosed.
The legacy created by the cold war bomb effort,
BNFL, and the rush to import used nuclear fuel from around the world
to earn foreign currency, cannot be separated. The largest single nuclear
inventory in Europe is in another building, B215, known also as the
high-level evaporation and storage facility. High-level nuclear waste
is still pumped in from the soon to be redundant nuclear fuel reprocessing
works and reduced in volume by boiling in a semi-vacuum.
The new section was opened in 1991 by Michael Heseltine,
then environment secretary, but what Stephen Wilson, the plant controller,
calls the "old side" dates from the 40s. The nuclear installation
inspectorate is worried about lack of progress in dealing with this
plant and has ordered a progressive reduction of the 1,400 cubic metres
of highly radioactive liquor.
B215 is the Sellafield plant that most frightens
the Irish government. Since the September 11 attacks the Irish have
worried about the tanks as a target and the danger of a radioactive
cloud drifting across the Irish sea.
Security at Sellafield is now much tighter; armed
police have been supplemented with many other deterrents and the car
park once close to these buildings has been moved. The Guardian was
banned from taking photographs in certain areas.
All this has led to a new urgency to get the waste
dealt with. The solution to the high-level waste problem is to mix it
with glass and turn it into blocks, which can be kept cool in stores
until a final disposal route is found. The problem was thought to have
been solved 10 years ago when the first vitrification plant was started
but the intense radiation from the waste destroyed the machinery which
was turning it into glass. The battle to make the technology work efficiently
continues, but BNFL is confident that it is winning.
The company's final problem is what to do with all
the nuclear junk once it has been safely packaged. Currently, there
are hundreds of drums of waste in store, soon to be joined by thousands
more, around 50,000 cubic metres. So far the government has no plan
for dealing with it. The options include storing it in concrete bunkers
above ground or a deep depository underground - the big headache for
ministers though, is where.
Weapons and waste that made site infamous
· Windscale, a closed second world war TNT
and munitions factory, is taken over in 1947 by the ministry of supply
as site suitable for nuclear weapons factory
· First plutonium is produced in 1951 in
prototype nuclear fuel reprocessing plant and shipped to Aldermaston,
Berkshire, to make bomb for first UK atomic test n 1952
· UK atomic energy authority forms in 1954
to take over site
· Queen opens world's first nuclear power
station in 1956, at Calder Hall on Windscale site. It has four Magnox
· Disastrous fire in 1957 at Windscale Pile
No 1, the nuclear plant used for making plutonium
· Radioactive elements are sprayed over the
countryside in the world's worst nuclear accident before Chernobyl.
For months all local milk is poured down drain
· Reprocessing works for spent fuel from
Magnox reactors opens in 1964 to dissolve nuclear fuel into uranium
· Windscale advanced gas cooled reactor opens
in 1963, the first of a family of reactors now operated by British Energy.
This prototype closes in 1981
· British Nuclear Fuels is formed in 1971
to take over running of Windscale
· In the 70s, first opposition to nuclear
power begins and there is widespread protest at nuclear discharges into
· Name of plant changed from Windscale to
Sellafield to "improve" image
· Inquiry into leukaemia cluster at Sellafield,
identified in early 80s, fails to pinpoint cause
· Government abandons plans in 1988 for a
fast breeder reactor programme using plutonium fuel as it is "uneconomic"
· Thorp reprocessing plant opens in 1994
· Hours before the 1997 election, plans for
a deep depository for nuclear waste under Sellafield abandoned by Conservative
· The 1999 Japanese fuel falsification scandal
rocks BNFL's plutonium fuel export programme
· Calder Hall closes in March 2003
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