Not so safe Sellafield

  • 25 February 2005
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Sellafield has an excellent visitors' centre, but its security and accountancy are not up to standard. Tom Farrell reports on the state of the British nuclear industry and its impact on Ireland


The visitors' centre just outside the Sellafield nuclear plant in Cumbria does a good job of putting the fun into nuclear fusion.

On weekdays, coaches of schoolchildren alight in the car park with the choppy Irish Sea in the background and make for the "interactive" displays within.

Visible nearby is the spherical Windscale reactor, in the process of being decomissioned. Close by are the "piles", the scene of a deadly fire in 1957 whose effects were not made public for 25 years.

A few police can be seen around the main entrance but their presence is not heavy. But the UK Atomic Energy Agency (UKAEA) Constabulary might consider putting a few more on duty.

On 16 February, the same day the Kyoto protocol became law, an annual audit showed that 30kg of plutonium was unaccounted for at Sellafield. Plutonium makes up around one per cent of nuclear material handled by British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL) at Sellafield. The rest is uranium.

Both the British Department of Trade and Industry and BNFL have strenuously denied any material was stolen, blaming "accountancy discrepancies" for the apparent loss of the plutonium.

The amount involved would be enough to build five or six nuclear weapons.

The British government is committed to reducing Britain's greenhouse gas emissions from their 1990 levels by 12.5 per cent by 2010. So if it attempts to spin a "pro-nuclear energy policy", the visitors' centre is probably an omen of things to come.

Britain and Ireland are among the 34 industrialised nations who have ratified the Kyoto protocol, although our greenhouse gas emissions are already higher than in 1990.

British environmentalists reacted angrily to the release last month of minutes from a meeting of the EU Council of Ministers in Brussels, where Tony Blair attempted to revise downwards the EU objective of slashing greenhouse gas emissions by 60 per cent by 2050.

In theory, this would make the Bush administration more amenable to an agreement. Having pulled out of the Kyoto Protocol, the Bush administration is planning a new energy bill that gives new incentives to the nuclear industry.

In truth, American conservatives are divided on the nuclear energy issue. There are those who advocate nuclear power to lessen reliance on Middle Eastern oil. Others argue that more power stations mean more nuclear radioactive material available for terrorists to steal.

It has emerged that the original 9/11 attacks were envisioned as far more audacious, involving 10 planes. The imprisoned al-Qaida planner Khalid Sheikh Mohammed told the 9/11 Commission that one of them was to be flown into a nuclear reactor.

Last July, Tony Blair told a committee of senior MPs that Washington was pressing Britain to consider building a new generation of nuclear power stations.

Britain's 2003 white paper on energy recommends renewable energy sources as an alternative to nuclear power for generating electricity, but does not rule out the nuclear option, instead placing it "on hold" for five years.

The proponents of nuclear power argue that newer generation reactors, such as the Westinghouse AP1000, recently licensed in the United States, are less likely to malfunction and are safer.

But Pete Roche, an energy and environmental consultant with Greenpeace UK, disagrees: "They rely more on natural systems like gravity. They are called 'passively safe' but really have many safety systems stripped out to save money."

Malcolm Grimston, a former adviser to the British Nuclear Industry Forum and a fellow of the Royal Institute of International Affairs (RIIA) thinks that nuclear power will be back on the agenda after the British general election. Britain may eventually emulate France and rely totally on nuclear stations for energy generation, he believes.

"They were enormously dependent on imported oil in the 1970s. The oil price quadrupled in 1973 and the French decided they couldn't continue to be that dependent on imported energy from politically unstable areas of the world," he says.

"We, of course, have been more fortunate in the UK. We've got our own North Sea oil and gas reserves which have given us a cushion.

"But they've probably peaked by now. We're talking about becoming a gas importer within five years so we're moving towards the position the French found themselves in 30 years ago."

What nobody denies is that the "post fossil-fuel era" is now upon us, something that has implications for Ireland's own energy policies. David Horgan, managing director of oil company Petrel, agrees:

"Dessie O'Malley tried to force through a power station, ignored the economics and was stopped by protests at Carnsore Point.

"The people who were dismissed as 'hairy lefties' were proved correct. But the world does move on. It could well be that for a generation, the least bad alternative is the use of nuclear energy."

Should nuclear power return to the agenda, Sellafield itself, which no longer generates electricity but is used chiefly as a "reprocessing" centre for nuclear waste, is unlikely to be a first-choice location for new types of power plant.

"The most anyone is talking about really is replacing current stations with 10 new reactors," says Pete Roche.

"They would probably be on existing sites, but we would never get to the high levels of electricity generations seen in France. Hinkley in Somerset and Hunterston on the west coast of Scotland are the sites most frequently mentioned."

BNFL take orders internationally for nuclear waste reprocessing at Sellafield. But it hasn't proved to be the cash-cow they were expecting. Sellafield's thermal-oxide reprocessing plant, Roche says, "will probably close down in 2010".

A mixed-oxide reprocessing plant was commissioned in November 2001, but Roche is sceptical about its viability. "The government seems to be determined to get the mixed-oxide plant up and running if BNFL can ever get it to work. They have a very limited number of orders though, from Germany, Switzerland and Sweden, with none from Japan, and it is very unlikely they will get any."

The Irish Government unsuccessfully tried to take legal action against the British government over the mixed-oxide reprocessing facility commissioned in November 2001. But Malcolm Grimston says he is "not in the least surprised that governments there want to divert attention away from Ireland's abysmal environmental record, (and) towards trying to look for scapegoats elsewhere".

"Ireland is one of the great environmental vandals at the moment, greenhouse gas emissions rose by something like 13 per cent in the 1990s, which was one the highest proportions in the developed world," he says.

After the 2001 case was dismissed, a tribunal set up in Hamburg in June 2003 under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea also rejected Irish calls for Sellafield's closure, but ruled that Britain was obliged to consult Ireland over the operation and development of the plant.

"A constructive criticism of the Irish Government's efforts would be that it should be more specific about the closures it seeks at Sellafield," says Martin Forwood, spokesman for Cumbrians Against a Radioactive Environment.

"It is somewhat counter-productive to call for 'the closure of Sellafield' when in reality this cannot be done – the site has to be kept open for decades to come, simply to ensure the best management of the large inventory of radioactive materials held on site."

At a meeting in December in the Customs House between British ambassador Stewart Eldon and Environment Minister Dick Roche, at which the Irish Government's position on Sellafield was stated as "unchanged", it was agreed to give the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland greater access to Sellafield and its security arrangements.

In the event of a major accident, as happened in 1957, the institute would liaise with Met Éireann, the Departments of the Environment, Defence and Health, the Garda and Civil Defence to enact the National Emergency Plan for Nuclear Accidents.

The institute's principal scientific officer, Christopher Hone, says the national emergency plan does not anticipate a disaster of Chernobyl-type proportions.

"What we're talking about is not an accident where people suddenly receive such a high dose of radiation that they're going to be seriously injured or die from it. What we're concerned about is the contamination of the environment, particularly of foodstuffs," says Hone. He adds that such a release could still do a tremendous amount of harm to the economy, especially agriculture.

The fact that Irish people are concerned about Sellafield is grudgingly acknowledged at the Sellafield visitors' centre. Within one display cabinet is an illuminated full-page "Shut Sellafield" ad from the Times of 24 November 2001, signed by most Fianna Fáil TDs.

If the notorious September 2001 performance of Joe Jacob TD on RTÉ Radio 1 (when, as junior minister with responsibility for the energy sector, he appeared to have no idea of how to deal with a prospective Sellafield disaster) was an indicator, the National Emergency Plan may not be cause for much reassurance. Ireland should hope no future terrorists attempt a 9/11 type attack on Sellafield.

Particularly vulnerable are Sellafield's High Activity Storage Tanks (HAST) whose contents must be continually cooled and will boil off into the atmosphere if the cooling process is interrupted for 12 hours or more.

An article in New Scientist magazine in September 2001 estimated that such an attack on the HAST facility at Sellafield would release 44 times as much radioactivity as the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, and would ultimately cause 1.2 million cancers in Britain and Ireland. Unlike the Times "Shut Sellafield" ad, however, the New Scientist article is not to be found at the Sellafield visitors' centre.p