Continued discharges from Sellafield for ten more years

Publish date: August 9, 2002

Written by: Erik Martiniussen

The British authorities do not show any intention to stop the substantial discharges from Sellafield before 2012. There is however a slight possibility that the controversial discharges of technetium may be reduced.

The British authorities have for the time being allowed the radioactive discharges from Sellafield to continue. They have decided to await the situation until 2012 when the oldest reprocessing plant (B205) will be shut down.

Anticipates a solution to the technetium discharges
The British Secretary of State for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, Margaret Beckett, has however not shut the door entirely on the possibility to take steps against the comprehensive discharges of technetium-99 (Tc-99). The Tc-99 discharges have caused major anxiety and concern in both Ireland and Norway. The Norwegian Prime Minister, Kjell Magne Bondevik, met with his British colleague Tony Blair this spring and discussed the matter with him. Due to this the discharges from Sellafield have been subject to thorough investigation, and when the British Government presented its plan of action against radioactive discharges, their final conclusion to what is to be done with these particular discharges was not yet decided on. If nothing is done now, these discharges too are likely to continue for another ten years.

faf07838ec52e4d0d003e370610e5575.jpeg Photo: Foto: Erik Martiniussen/ Bellona

There are two reprocessing plants on the Sellafield site. The almost 40-year old plant B205 was put into operation in 1964 and is responsible for the most severe discharges from Sellafield. Until B205 is shut down in 2012, the British authorities find it difficult to reduce the discharges.

If however the British had decided to close down B205 the total discharge from Sellafield would have been reduced with 70%.

Nevertheless, the British authorities are not willing to advance the closing of the old plant. On the contrary, they follow in the foot steps of the owner of the Sellafield plant, the one hundred percent government-owned company British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL), who is determined to maintain operations at the plant for ten more years. BNFL refuses to end the reprocessing of Britain’s remaining Magnox fuel. Magnox is a highly insecure and environmentally hazardous fuel, which is used in Great Britain’s oldest nuclear reactors. As long as reprocessing of Magnox is sustained the discharges will continue.

OSPAR commitments
A number of security-related problems at some of the Magnox reactors have however necessitated the shutdown of eight of these reactors as early as next year. Still four Magnox reactors will continue operations.

The management of BNFL has for a long time argued that it would be futile to install new purification technology as long as reprocessing of Magnox takes place. And now they will have it their way. The new plan does not request shutdown of B205, nor does it involve any demands on new purification technology before 2012.

In a longer perspective however, the British authorities are forced to consider reduction measures as Great Britain has committed themselves through the OSPAR agreement of 1998 to stop all discharges from Sellafield from 2020. Even though the discharges will be dramatically reduced after the shutdown of B205 in 2012, a discharge of approximately 50 terabequerel alpha and beta emitting substances will remain. These discharges, equaling about one third of the current discharges, originate from the reprocessing plant THORP which BNFL intends to keep operative until the middle of this century. The Government is now examining whether this is compatible with the nation’s environmental commitments.

“Before any new contracts for THORP are entered into, we will carry out a review of reprocessing which will look closely at whether THORP’s continues operation is consistent with our environmental objectives and international obligations”, Margaret Beckett said when presenting the new strategy.

During the OSPAR meeting two years ago Great Britain was asked to consider other ways than reprocessing at Sellafield to handle their nuclear fuels. Neither Great Britain nor France supported this decision, nor have they complied with it.