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Wednesday 19 December 2018

Fears of a fire breaking out: Now 'run-down' Sellafield poses new safety risk

The Sellafield nuclear reprocessing site near Seascale in Cumbria, England. REUTERS/David Moir/Files
The Sellafield nuclear reprocessing site near Seascale in Cumbria, England. REUTERS/David Moir/Files
Paul Melia

Paul Melia

Radioactive materials have been stored in degrading plastic bottles and parts of the nuclear facility at Sellafield regularly have too few staff to operate safely, a BBC investigation has found.

An investigation by 'Panorama' was told by a whistle-blower that his "biggest fear" was a fire breaking out which could generate a "plume of radiological waste that will go across Western Europe".

The report comes after a number of incidents over the years at the Cumbrian site, just 170km from Ireland, which have raised safety concerns here.

The UK's National Audit Office has described the site as the "most hazardous" in Britain, with some of the 240 buildings "deteriorating" or falling short of national standards, posing "significant risks" to people or the environment.

But a 2011 government-commissioned report, which cost €2.9m, ruled out any safety risk to Ireland, even if radioactive materials were released in an accident caused by a natural disaster or human error.

The report, 'Probabilistic Risk Assessment report of the risks from Sellafield to Ireland and Irish interests', which cost €2.9m and was organised by US law firm Egan, Fitzpatrick, Malsch & Lawrence, has never been published in full.

It concluded that an incident at Sellafield or the low-level waste repository "would result in no observable health effects in Ireland".

Even if there was a "severe" incident, it would not create health impacts but would create "significant socioeconomic impacts" including a negative impact on tourism and exports of Irish food.

Read more: Nuclear expert warns of 'Chernobyl on steroids' risk from proposed nuclear plant 200km from Irish coast

The BBC investigation was prompted by a whistle-blower, a former senior manager at the plant, who was worried about conditions and staffing levels. Figures obtained by Panorama claimed that between July 2012 and July 2013 there were 97 incidents where parts of the site had too few workers on shift.

Sellafield says there are now fewer breaches of safe minimum manning levels but the latest figures show they are still being breached on average once a week.

Dr Rex Strong, head of nuclear safety at Sellafield, denied that operating below these levels was dangerous.

"Facilities are shut down if we're not able to operate them in the way that we want to," he said.

Concerns were also raised about how radioactive materials were stored, with the investigation discovering that liquid containing plutonium and uranium had been kept in plastic bottles for years.

Irish Independent

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