UK taken to court over nuclear waste dispute

Publish date: September 14, 2004

Written by: Erik Martiniussen

The European Union (EU) is bringing the Government of the United Kingdom (UK) to court over a dispute involving nuclear waste at the Sellafield reprocessing site. The European Court of Justice will hear the case on an as yet undetermined date, the EU Commission said in a statement released late last week.

In the statement made by the EU Commission (EC), the UK is accused of not providing a credible plan for how to deal with spent plutonium and uranium, which lies at the bottom of a storage pond that is more than 40 years old, at the Sellafield nuclear site in the north-west of England.

UK delivered just a draft
“We are taking this action to demand that British authorities comply with their responsibilities,” EU energy commissioner, Loyola de Palacio, told Reuters last week.

The conflict centres on the aging and derelict storage pond located at the Sellafield site. The 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-grade plutonium.

The pond—and B-30, the plant that houses it— is now closed, but the pond still contains between 300 and 450 tonnes of SNF. But what is more disturbing perhaps is that no one knows the exact contents of the pond. Some of the waste within the pond has corroded or disintegrated, making the fuel removal of the spent plutonium and uranium fuel especially tricky. It also complicates the request filed last spring by the EU that the pond be cleansed, difficult to fulfil.

In March, the EU requested Britain to develop a comprehensive plan for removing the waste in the pond by June 1st 2004. The Directive adopted by the EC asked the UK to take all legal and administrative action necessary to put an end to the infringements detected at the Sellafield site.

In particular, the Directive mandated that by June 1st the UK present the EC with a complete plan that would guarantee that all the material stored in the pool would be properly accounted for. The same plan, as stipulated by the directive, was to guarantee the part of the site were B-30 is located would be fully accessible for the purposes of physical verification by Euratom safety inspectors.

The UK sent an official response on the request, but the EC obviously found the response inadequate. In its statement last week, the EC wrote that: “The proposed action plan is to be regarded as no more than a preliminary draft […] nor does the UK’s formal response contain either an investment project or an adequate financing plan.”

Decision welcomed by Ireland
Commenting on the statement energy Commissioner Loyola de Palacio said:

“We have to ensure that EU citizens are appropriately protected, that they are informed, that they have a guarantee that all nuclear power stations within the EU are functioning appropriately,” the de Palacio said.

Irish environmental minister, Martin Cullen has welcomed the decision of the European Commission.

“The announcement that the UK in being brought to court reinforces our determination to ensure the safe closure of Sellafield,” Cullen told News & Star Friday.

“The issue of access to information at Sellafield has been central to Ireland’s two legal challenges to the UN Court of Arbitration. The decision is further evidence that the UK Government is struggling to cope with the legacy of 50 years of nuclear power,”

A spokeswoman at the UK’s EU representative office in Brussels said the EC’s concerns were related to accounting for what is done with the ageing Sellafield the pond—not environmental risks.

Facts about B-30
B-30, nicknamed “dirty 30” by workers at Sellafield, is a former storage and de-canning facility located at the Sellafield reprocessing plant built in close proximity to the coast of the Irish Sea.

The plant was commissioned in 1959-1960 as part of the expanding British nuclear programme. Its role was to receive and store spent nuclear fuel from British Magnox-reactors, and to remove the fuel cladding prior to the fuel’s reprocessing.

After an accident at the Magnox reprocessing plant in 1974, a long reprocessing shutdown caused fuel to be stored underwater at B-30 for longer than is generally accepted normal. This resulted in corrosion to the Magnox fuel cans in the storage pond, giving the rise to increased radiation levels and poor underwater visibility. This slowed the rate of de-canning, increasing residence times, thus creating a vicious circle.

A number of steps were taken to counterbalance the problems, but none were successful, and B-30 continued to operate under difficult conditions until its replacement facility, the Fuel Handling plant, was commissioned in 1986.

Today B-30 plant and its pool are shut. Still, the derelict storage pond is said to contain 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. Because of radiation levels near B-30, workers at the plant can only spend one hour at a day near the pond.

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