Sellafield leak puts spotlight on spent fuel sites




By Mark Huband

Financial Times, 13 June 2005

The closure of a part of the Sellafield nuclear complex in Cumbria after the discovery of a leak of acid containing uranium and plutonium has led to strong criticism of the management at a time when plans for storing spent nuclear fuel are expected to be announced.

The leak at Sellafield’s thermal oxide reprocessing plant, known as Thorp, run by British Nuclear Fuels, is thought to have started last August but was only detected in April.

Barry Snelson, managing director, told the BBC yesterday the plant could be closed for months. The issue was “a stumble, not a fall”, even though the acid contained 20 tonnes of uranium and 160kg of plutonium.

But the closure has come as ministers are about to open discussions on how to store radioactive fuel, which could become increasingly complicated if the management of nuclear facilities is in doubt.

The committee on radioactive waste management, which groups officials, advisors and industry representatives, is expected to consider building underground storage facilities at up to 20 sites across the UK.

The talks will be held as the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate considers a prosecution in light of the Sellafield leak. BNFL said the leak had brought reprocessing operations at Sellafield to a standstill since April, and that its subsidiary British Nuclear Group was “co-operating fully with the NII inquiry”.

Friends of the Earth, the environmental group, said the leak and the eight months it took to detect it raised serious questions about safety and management systems at Sellafield.

“The dangerous thing is not that it’s just nitric acid, but that there’s uranium and plutonium in it,” said Roger Higman, campaigner on nuclear issues.

“There are quite rigid checks on uranium and plutonium. The alarming thing is that either these checks weren’t done or they were done and they couldn’t find where the leak was. It casts a very dim light on the British Nuclear Group management,” Mr Higman said.

BNG was created on March 31 after the governments established the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority to take over many of the assets and clean-up liabilities of British Nuclear Fuels. Sellafield is run by BNG under contract to the authority.

“BNG needs to find out who knew what when, because it is a bit weird that a major leak was detected only a few weeks after responsibility for Thorp passed from BNFL to BNG.”


© Copyright The Financial Times Ltd 2008.