Sellafield leaks worse than feared

the Sunday Herald, December 14, 2003
By Rob Edwards , Environment Editor

Original address:

[Posted 14/12/2003]

Fears for drinking supply as radioactive pollution at nuclear plant contaminates groundwater.

Radioactive contamination of the groundwater under the Sellafield nuclear complex is worse than thought and British Nuclear Fuels isn't doing enough about it, says the government's English watchdog, the Environment Agency.

The agency has told the local community in Cumbria it is “not satisfied” with the progress being made by the state-owned company in understanding the spread of pollution. New evidence indicates the contamination is “potentially significant”.

“BNFL has messed up again,” alleged Pete Roche from the environmental group, Greenpeace. “Contamination of groundwater is a serious matter, and BNFL has displayed a lackadaisical attitude in its efforts to discover the source.”

BNFL admitted two years ago that the radioactive wastes, technetium-99 and tritium, had been found in boreholes on the site. Last year, the government's Nuclear Installations Inspectorate reported that the contamination was also detectable outside the site.

Now the Environment Agency is suggesting it has spread further. “The agency is concerned that the current contaminated land study is indicating that there is potentially significant contamination of groundwater,” it reported to the Sellafield local liaison committee a few days ago.

“The lateral spread of technetium-99 and tritium on the Sellafield site appears to be greater than last reported. The agency considers the develop ment of deeper boreholes should lead to a greater understanding of the vertical spread of contamination into the aquifer beneath the site. The agency is not satisfied with BNFL's progress in such work.”

The agency's inspectors are worried BNFL is not using the best practice when it samples groundwater. “We are very keen to protect the aquifer,” one of them told the Sunday Herald. “We are pushing BNFL very hard on this.”

Environmentalists fear contamination of the sandstone aquifer under the site could affect drinking water.

“It's disgraceful that this liquid radioactive plume is being allowed to spread out-side Sellafield unchecked and out of hand,” Martin Forwood, a member of Cumbrians Opposed to a Radioactive Environment (Core).

“That it now appears to involve not just technetium-99 but a number of other radioactive materials, and to have penetrated the sandstone aquifer below Sellafield, is a major concern and a threat to drinking water supplies. BNFL and the Environment Agency must come clean now with the public about what is happening.”

There are several possible sources for the leak. One is six, huge, old tanks containing 3000 tonnes of radioactive sludge, another is some old waste disposal trenches and a third is a complex of ponds and silos containing high-level waste.

“The most likely source is previously reported leaks from historic facilities on the site. We are continuing our investigations to confirm the precise source or sources,” said a BNFL spokesman.

“The levels found pose no threat to health, and are so low that sophisticated techniques are required to measure them. The company has already made improvements to its sampling regimes, and is developing an integrated monitoring programme as suggested.”