Serious problems confronting Sellafield, Cumbria

The Ecologist reports, 27th October 2014: “Dilapidated nuclear waste storage ponds abandoned 40 years ago containing hundreds of tonnes of fuel rods pose an immediate danger to public safety, photographs sent to The Ecologist reveal. The fuel and sludge in the ponds could spontaneously ignite if exposed to air, spreading intense radiation over a wide area.

The images, from an anonymous source, show the state of spent nuclear fuel storage ponds that were commissioned in 1952, and used until the mid-1970’s as short term storage for spent fuel until it could be re-processed, producing plutonium for military use. However they were completely abandoned in the mid-1970s and have been left derelict for almost 40 years.

The photographs show cracked concrete tanks holding water contaminated with high levels of radiation, seagulls bathing on the water, broken equipment, a dangerous mess of discarded items on elevated walkways, and weeds growing around the tanks.

The fuel storage ponds, the largest measuring 20m wide, 150m long and 6m deep, are now completely packed with spent fuel in disastrously poor condition. If the ponds drain, the spent fuel may spontaneously ignite.

The ponds are now undergoing decommissioning in order to restore them to safe condition. But the process is fraught with danger – and nuclear expert John Large warns that massive and uncontrolled radioactive releases to the environment could occur.

“This pond is build above ground”, he said. “It’s like an concrete dock full of water. But the concrete is in dreadful condition, degraded and fractured, and if the ponds drain, the Magnox fuel will ignite and that would lead to a massive release of radioactive material.

“Looking at the photos I am very disturbed at the degraded and run down condition of the structures and support services. In my opinion there is a significant risk that the system could fail. If you got a breach of the wall by accident or by terrorist attack, the Magnox fuel would burn. I would say there’s many hundreds of tonnes in there. It could give rise to a very big radioactive release. It’s not for me to make comparisons with Chernobyl or Fukushima, but it could certainly cause serious contamination over a wide area and for a very long time.”

Several days prior to publication The Ecologist contacted the Office of Nuclear Regulation (ONR), the statutory nuclear safety regulator, with pressing
questions about the safety of the site, safety plans in the event of water loss or radioactive release, and whether anyone will be prosecuted over the abandonment of the ponds in this highly dangerous condition.

We [The Ecologist / TE] have now received their replies:

ONR: “Sellafield is ONR’s highest regulatory priority and receives a significantly enhanced level of regulatory attention. It is also a recognised national priority to reduce the hazard and risk at Sellafield in a safe and timely manner. We are focusing significant regulatory attention on retrieval of legacy material from the legacy ponds as we recognise the high hazard and risk that these facilities present.”

TE: Are you satisfied that these nuclear installation are safe and ‘fit for purpose’?

ONR: “The legacy facilities at Sellafield were built in the 1950s and 1960s and therefore don’t meet modern engineering standards. Additionally, the legacy facilities were not designed with retrievals of material or decommissioning in mind. This does not mean that operations and activities on these facilities are unsafe, but it highlights the need for Sellafield Ltd to retrieve the legacy material in a safe manner as quickly as reasonably possible.

“Our new regulatory approach is aimed at encouraging and facilitating this objective. We are working collaboratively with other key stakeholders to focus priorities and help drive improvements at Sellafield.

“The new strategy and collaborative working approach is having a positive impact on hazard and risk reduction, particularly in relation to the Pile Fuel Storage Pond where we have enabled the acceleration of removal of legacy canned fuel by four months. We expect this approach to enable Sellafield Ltd to retrieve further legacy material from these facilities ahead of schedule.”

TE: It is reported that the ponds are leaking. Can you confirm this, and can you reveal where any leakage is going?

ONR: “ONR is not aware of any leaks from the ponds.”

Source: The Ecologist, 27th October 2014. For full details see:

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