14 April 2005

IOL

Sellafield dangers 'could last 150 years'

14/04/2005 - 18:45:23

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Dangers posed by the Sellafield nuclear plant could threaten Ireland for the next 150 years, it was claimed today.

With the site winding down operations the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland warned discharge levels of radioactive waste would increase during decommissioning.

But Dr Ann McGarry, RPII chief executive, said the possibility of an accident was small.

“We spent considerable time during the visit discussing accident scenarios and the implications for Ireland of any significant release of radioactivity,” Dr McGarry said.

“Our overall impression was that a good start had been made, but that the scale of decommissioning works to be undertaken would present very real challenges to both the operators and regulators for many years to come.”

An RPII report on the future of Sellafield found that decommissioning and final site remediation of the 700 acre site could run until 2150.

Dr McGarry said potential contamination in Ireland in the wake of a serious accident or incident at Sellafield could force authorities to step in to reduce contamination in the foodchain.

And the RPII noted challenges facing British Nuclear Fuels Limited should not be underestimated.

The cost of clean-up and decommissioning could hit £150m (€220m) a year until 2020, the group claimed.

Sellafield, originally known as Windscale, and only 12 miles from the Irish coast, was built in the late 1940s and first generated electricity with its Calder Hall reactor in 1956.

However, controversy soon reigned after a fire broke out in a chimney the following year spreading radioactivity across the Cumbrian countryside.

At the time, it was the world’s worst nuclear accident and is still regarded as Britain’s most severe.

Nowadays the site includes a mixed oxide (Mox) plant. Built in 1997, it processes waste from other countries’ nuclear power plants, making the material reusable.

But it also produces vast quantities of waste water and high-level nuclear waste which has to be kept far away from humans for 250,000 years.

And Dr McGarry said BNFL had shown a greater focus on dealing with waste from the closure of other nuclear plants across the UK and on managing their own legacy wastes.

The RPII report followed a visit from the RPII last September to see first hand the facilities at Sellafield, security issues however were outside the scope of the trip.

Dick Roche, Environment Minister, said improved talks had led to increased access for Irish officials to the site.

But he warned the dangers would not disappear overnight.

“British nuclear safety, and in particular the activities at Sellafield, have long been a cause of concern for Ireland, and the RPII report shows that this is not going to change in the medium term,” the minister said.

The main activities at the site now involve the storage and reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel, the storage of plutonium and uranium, the fabrication of mixed oxide fuel and decommissioning activities.

The RPII report noted shutting down the plant would cause unspecified radioactive discharges.

It also revealed there were no commitments to a guaranteed reduction in discharges.

The RPII said the scope and extent of the terrorist threat assessments undertaken for BNFL were not known. Officials said they were seriously concerned about the lack of information.

The group did however discuss on-site and off-site emergency arrangements with BNFL staff and Cumbria County Council officials.



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