The advisory may be a serious setback for Norwegian efforts to stop the radioactive discharges. If the Tc-99 discharges now are to be stopped, it is likely that British Prime Minister Tony Blair himself has to take action.
Will not consider
In December 2002, the British Environment Minister Michael Meacher asked interested parties to consider whether it would be possible to impose a moratorium on the discharges of Technetium-99 from the Sellafield site. The procedure was estimated to take four months: One month of hearings and three months of consideration at the Environmental Agency (EA). The deadline of the hearing is now reached, and the agency assigned to consider the possibilities of stopping the discharges now states that they do not see this as a constructive way forward.
..A moratorium on MAC treatment pending future TPP investigations does not seem to us to be a constructive way forward that would lead to a viable means of treating MAC in store to remove Tc-99….
Now only the British government can stop the Tc-99 discharges, by issuing a ban on further discharges. If Meacher and Margaret Beckett are to choose a strategy that goes against their own agency, it has to be backed by strong political interests. This probably depends on a strong international pressure regarding the issue.
Delayed for nine years
Britain has a history of delaying decisions considering the Sellafield discharges. Norway and other Scandinavian countries have protested since 1994, when the discharges first started. Nothing has happened so far. In September 2001 a proposed decision from the EA was issued. In their review EA proposed to stop the discharges of Tc-99 from Magnox-reprocessing, but the Agency did not address the continuous discharge from the historic liquid waste stored onshore at Sellafield.
Welcoming a final proposal from the EA, Norway waited a long time for a final decision regarding Tc-99 from the British government. But it took a whole year after EAs proposal had been presented to the British government followed up, though not with a decision but with a new proposal for yet another review.
The December governmental proposal of even further review had led to the fact that the Sellafield Tc-99 discharges are still allowed to continue.
A discharge outlet of approximately 30 Terrabecquerel (TBq) Tc-99 is going on at the moment. The radioactive discharge takes about two years to reach the Norwegian coastline.
Blair breaks promise
The owner of the Sellafield site, British Nuclear Fuel Ltd (BNFL) has done research on the use Tetraphenylphosphonium bromide (TPP) to clean out Tc-99 from the discharge. This purification technique involves adding the precipitation agent TPP to the historic liquid waste before the concentrate is treated. This process yields a precipitation product, which can be cleaned out by existing filters, cemented and then stored as intermediate level waste.
This abatement technology has proved to be promising in a laboratory scale. The next step would be a plat trail of the technology. But so far the regulators are withholding permission for such a trail, mainly because of concerns about the solid waste it will generate and this waste forms lack of compatibility with NIREX requirements. Regulators are also concerned about TPP toxicity levels.
Norwegian Prime Minister Kjell Magne Bondevik met his British colleague Tony Blair in May last year. At that time Mr Blair promised to consider onshore storage of Tc-99. If EA gets their opinion across, the promised consideration will not take place.
The historic Tc-99 liquid waste at Sellafield is stored in the B211 storage tanks. Bellona inspected these tanks in December 2002. Constructed in 1951, the tanks are more than 50 years old and do not live up to the modern security standards for such sites. British Health and Safety Executive (HSE) disclosed recently severe problems on the old storage tanks. The most alarming was the corrosive attacks on the girder above the storage facility. HSE has given BNFL six months to come up with possible upgrading measures. If this measures are not accepted by the HSE, it is possible BNFL is imposed to build a new storage facility.
Bellona wrote to the Norwegian Prime Minister last September, urging him to take action in this matter. Secretary of State Gunnar Kvassheim replied, on behalf of the Prime Minister, that Mr Blair was already well aquatinted with Mr Bondeviks view on this matter.
Bellona Foundation, Norwegian NGO Lofoten mot Selalfield and BNFL will organise a conference regarding the Tc-99 issue at Sellafield in April.