EC: Sellafield must clean up nuclear waste pond

Så seint som i 1989 ble militært plutonium framstilt ved Sellafield-anlegget.
Foto: Richart Hauglin

Publish date: April 15, 2004

Written by: Erik Martiniussen

A forty-year-old radioactive waste storage pond at Britain’s Sellafield nuclear power installation—whose waste content is unknown—has become the centre of a European Commission, or EC, intervention that has requested British authorities to develop a plan to dismantle the aged storage pond by May. Bellona will visit the pond in June.

The aged storage pond, which was built in the late 1950’s, was originally used to hold spent nuclear fuel, or SNF, for reprocessing and eventual production of weapons grad plutonium. The storage pond is now closed, but still contains between 300 and 450 tonnes of SNF. Some of the waste within the pond has corroded or disintegrated, making the fuel removal and cleaning request from the EU especially difficult to fulfill.

Unfamiliar with the contents
British authorities will now have to clean up the old storage pond, officially refereed to as B30, but nicknamed “dirty 30” by workers at Sellafield. The EC has requested Britain develop a comprehensive plan for removal of the waste before the end of May 2004. If it misses that deadline, it may be necessary too take the United Kingdom government before the European Union, or EU, Court of Law.

Removal and destruction of the nuclear waste may be difficult. Because of the radiation near dirty 30, workers at the plant can only spend one hour at a day near the pond. Parts of the spent fuel have corroded, and no one knows precisely how much waste the pond is holding.

This is exactly what worries the EC. Since the EC first gained accesses to the plant in 1986, the B30 pond has been a security issue. But little has been done from the British side to improve conditions, and it seems evident patience has run out in Brussels, home to the EC and other branches of EU government.

According to an EC document cited in the British daily “The Sunday Herald,” the EC is “strongly concerned about the situation regarding radioactive contamination of the environment surrounding the pond.” According to the Euratom treaty from 1957, every European country within the 15—soon to be 25— member EU is obliged at all times to know the precise amount of fissile materials it possess.

Because the British government have no information about, or control over, the contents of B30, it’s impossible to keep an accounting of dirty 30. This, according to the EC, is a violation of Euratom. The financially troubled British Nuclear Fuel plc, or BNFL, which owns the Sellafield nuclear facility, has told the commission that the derelict storage pond contains approximately 1,300 kilograms of plutonium. Of those 400 kilograms are likely corroded and lying at the bottom of the pond with other radioactive waste and sediment.

Radioactive leaks
According to The Sunday Herald, leaks have also occurred at the pond. Other tank installations at Sellafield have leaked in the past. Most notable, however, have been technetium-99, or Tc 99, leaks into the ground water. BNFL has begun efforts to reduce these leaks, which come from another tank on the Sellafield territory. Bellona inspected this tank installation in Spring, 2003. BNFL has also agreed to let Bellona representatives inspect the B30 storage pond in June this year.

Bellona wants to speed up decommissioning and clean-up work at Sellafield. Many old buildings in the plant’s industrial area are in significant disrepair. This is especially so in Sellafield’s now disused military complex, where weapons-grade plutonium was produced for British nuclear bombs. These plants are now empty—polluted ghost towns inside Sellafield.

Catastrophic fire
In October 1957, a catastrophic fire started in one of the military reactors at Sellafield. The fire caused two large spills of radioactivity. The largest spill happened early on the Friday, the 11th of October of that year. In a desperate attempt to extinguish the fire, Sellafield fire units doused the reactor with large amounts of water.

No one knew at that time what the results of fighting the reactor fire with water would be. It could have caused a explosion, but fortunately the water snuffed the fire out. The price was a massive cloud-like spill of radioactive steam, which drifted south through most of England and further, into the air over Europe.

By 11 o’clock on that catastrophic friday, firefighters brought the fire under control. Over 20 percent of the reactor was destroyed, and workers in the area were exposed to radiation levels 150 times higher than established limits. People in the local population were exposed to radiation levels of 10 times the maximum lifetime dose.

The old reactor is now hermetically closed. It’s still uncertain how it would be possible to dismantle the damaged reactor.

In addition to the old military reactor, the British authorities have before them the task of decommissionin the first military reprocessing plant at the Sellafield, known as B204. This plant has been shut down since an accident in September 1973.