Marinet suggests that new discharge permits for Bradwell, Essex, would be unlawful

Marinet has made a submission, dated 4th December 2016, to the Environment Agency in connection with the public consultation on whether Magnox Limited, the owner of the decommissioned nuclear power station at Bradwell, Essex, should be allowed to discharge waste radioactivity, heavy metals and nitrates from its existing and new pipeline into the Blackwater estuary.

The Blackwater estuary is a Marine Conservation Zone (MCZMCZ Marine Conservation Zone) designated to protect the native oyster, Ostrea edulis. The estuary is also a Special Protection Area (SPASPA Special Protection Areas (SPAs) are strictly protected sites classified in accordance with Article 4 of the EC Birds Directive, which came into force in April 1979. They are classified for rare and vulnerable birds (as listed on Annex I of the Directive), and for regularly occurring migratory species.) for wild birds and a Special Area of Conservation (SACSAC Special Areas of Conservation) protecting several marine features under the Habitats Directive.

The Bradwell plant is being decommissioned by Magnox Limited (part of the Cavendish Fluor Partnership), and the present permit applications involve the aqueous wastes arising from the dissolution in nitric acid of fuel element debris (FED — parts which still remain on site from the canisters which contained the nuclear fuel rods). The purpose is to recover the radionuclides contained in the FED material.

When the original decommissioning permit was granted by the Office of Nuclear Regulation (ONR) in 2002 Magnox Ltd said that the FED waste would be encased in concrete, which would have resulted in no release of radioactivity into the environment. However in 2006 Magnox decided that it wished to store the radioactivity in a more compressed form, and believed that this could be done by dissolving the FED waste in acid and then recovering the radioactivity from the acidic liquor. This required a BPEO certificate (Best Practical Environmental Option) from ONR, which was granted. The acid to be used was carbonic acid.

Then Magnox changed its mind further, and decided it wished to use nitric acid (a stronger acid which speeded up the process) instead of carbonic acid. It applied to ONR again to obtain a FONSE certificate (Finding Of No Significant Effect), and this was granted provided the Environment Agency issued a certificate under the Water Resources Act which stated that the nitrate discharges arising from the process would have no adverse effect on the receiving water body, the Blackwater estuary.

In 2014 Magnox received a permit for 12 months from the Environment Agency (EA) to operate the FED process. This involved aqueous discharges of waste heavy metals, radioactivity and nitrates into the estuary.

The FED dissolution process however hit technical problems, and after 12 months only a very small fraction of the FED waste had been treated. Rather than go through the process of applying for a new permit, the EA decided to allow Magnox to continue with the discharges by not enforcing the expiry of the existing licence.

However it emerged at this point that the original 2014 permit had not been subject to an assessment by Natural England for the impact of the discharges upon upon the SPA and SAC — a legal requirement. Also, the existing discharge pipeline was silting up and a new pipeline had to be constructed. Thus it was decided to run the assessment on the SPA and SAC in tandem with a new discharge permit application. Magnox therefore issued a new Environmental Statement and EIA Risk Assessment, and the EA entered into an assessment of impact of the nitrates, heavy metals and radioactivity on the MCZ, SPA and SAC with Natural England.

Marinet has studied the EIA Risk Assessment and believes that the nitrate discharges would lead to an unacceptable deterioration in the nitrate levels in the estuary under the Water Framework’s Directive’s (WFD) legal standards, would also lead to an exceedance of heavy metal legal standards, for Chromium in particular, under the WFD legal standards. Such exceedances would be in contravention of the original BPEO certificate and the Habitats Directive protecting the conservation features. With regard to the native oyster (MCZ designation) and their exposure to radionuclides from the FED discharges, Marinet believes that no effective assessment of impact has been conducted, and that this is unlawful.

Accordingly Marinet has recommended to the Environment Agency that the new permit applications be refused, and that the existing permit be revoked (its expiry enforced). To see a copy of Marinet’s submission, click here.

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