Thursday, May 29, 2008

Sellafield's nuclear waste 'more dangerous' than Chernobyl - The Irish Times - Thu, May 29, 2008 - Sellafield's nuclear waste 'more dangerous' than Chernobyl
Sellafield's nuclear waste 'more dangerous' than Chernobyl

FRANK McDONALD, Environment Editor

SELLAFIELD HAS the world's biggest stockpile of plutonium and uranium and storage tanks contain highly volatile radioactive waste "more dangerous" than the Chernobyl reactor, according to a study published today.

The study, Voodoo Economics and the Doomed Nuclear Renaissance, also says the British government is now unlikely to meet its 1998 commitment under the Ospar Convention to reduce "close to zero" Sellafield's radioactive discharges into the Irish Sea by 2020.

Compiled for Friends of the Earth by veteran British environmental journalist Paul Brown, the report says the 2012 deadline for closing the Magnox reprocessing facility at Sellafield has now been abandoned and that the Thorp plant will have to remain open until 2015.

The study recalls that Britain's "nuclear recycling centre" has suffered "many near disastrous episodes in its history; but accidents and technical and management failures in the past 10 years have brought this production line of linked nuclear factories to a crisis".

"Sellafield is the home of the world's biggest stockpile of plutonium and uranium," writes Mr Brown.

The Magnox plant - described as Sellafield's "workhorse" - has produced an unused stockpile of 103 tonnes of plutonium and more than 30,000 tonnes of uranium.

"There is an ever-increasing quantity of nuclear waste which, despite billions of pounds of investment in hardware, the industry is struggling to deal with." Most of this is stored in huge tanks the size of swimming pools that have to be kept cool and monitored constantly.

The operators, Sellafield Ltd (formerly British Nuclear Fuels), are under a legal obligation to the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate to reduce the volume of highly radioactive "liquors" from 1,575 cubic metres in 2001 to a "buffer stock" of 200 cubic metres by 2015.

The storage tanks in which this highly volatile waste is held are considered to be "the single installation most vulnerable to terrorist attacks and together contain far more dangerous radioactivity than the Chernobyl reactor", said Mr Brown, who is a former environment correspondent of the Guardian.

His study notes that the Government has often expressed concern about the danger of a collapse of the tanks or the consequences of an interruption in the 24-hour-a-day supply of electricity and water that is required to keep the tanks cool.

The major clean-up priority at Sellafield is turning the highly dangerous liquid radioactive wastes into safer glass blocks. But the vitfrication plant where 1,335 cublic metres of liquid waste was to be converted into glass blocks has been unable to keep pace with production.

The study notes that there have also been technical problems with the evaporators - "giant kettles" that concentrate the liquid so that it can be stored for vitrification. Successive faults have meant they have been unable to deal with the volume of waste at Sellafield.

The failures of the vitrification and evaporator plants have forced Sellafield to scale back its reprocessing operations to avoid high-level waste accumulating. The extent of Sellafield's problems has not been fully explained to the public, nor have the potential knock-on effects for the nuclear industry, the study says. But the situation was rapidly getting worse and turning into an "economic and security nightmare".

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