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Nuclear fallout

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Harry Keaney

Opponents of the long controversial Sellafield nuclear power plant in the northwest of England, across the Irish Sea from Ireland, are eagerly awaiting a U.S. report, due to be completed at the end of this month, on the operations of the plant and its state-owned parent, British Nuclear Fuels Limited.

U.S. Energy Secretary Bill Richardson recently ordered "a top to bottom" review of British Nuclear Fuels’ work for the energy department at five sites in the U.S., according to U.S. energy department’s spokesman Tom Welch.

The U.S. review is to be completed by the end of May and aims to ensure that "problems uncovered at Sellafield" do not exist at the U.S. sites, Welch told the Echo last week.

The Sellafield plant has long been controversial in Ireland, particularly because of its radioactive discharges into the Irish Sea.

Richardson ordered the review after British government inspectors reported in February that workers at Sellafield had falsified documents relating to fuel rods shipped to Japan last September.

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In March, the company admitted that a saboteur severed cables on a robotic arm in a nuclear waste disposal unit at Sellafield.

Welch said that Richardson’s action came about because of "an accumulation of revelations" about BNFL’s record.

"This review team is looking closely at BNFL’s conduct of operations, including its management and safety record," Welch said. He added that the team would also meet in England with British investigators to review BNFL’s operations for comparison with the company’s work in the U.S.

The U.S. sites are at Oak Ridge, Tenn.; Rocky Flats, Col.; Hanford, Wash.; the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory near Idaho Falls, Idaho, and Fernald, Ohio.

In the U.S., BNFL has contracts worth tens of billions of dollars, thus making any U.S. concern about BNFL’s record particularly sensitive.

A coalition of more than 40 organizations had petitioned the U.S. Department of Energy to ban BNFL and its subsidiaries from holding U.S. government contracts. According to a letter accompanying the petition to Richardson, from Tom Carpenter of the Government Accountability Project, BNFL’s "demonstrated willingness to place the health and safety of people at risk in Japan, Germany, Ireland and Great Britain, in addition to their questionable actions at Oak Ridge and Hanford, shows that they do not deserve the public trust."

The recent revelations about falsified data at Sellafield related to quality-control checks on mixed oxidized fuel, also called MOX, that was shipped to Japan from a MOX demonstration plant at Sellafield.

MOX is a blend of uranium and plutonium. MOX is more expensive than uranium, but plant operators can re-use spent fuel without buying new uranium.

The falsification debacle coincided with efforts by BNFL to obtain government approval to produce MOX fuel on much larger scale in a newer and bigger plant at Sellafield.

The falsification occurred where data were punched manually into computer terminals. Workers called up a spread sheet accompanying an old order and simply punched in a new batch number, an engineer overseeing the facility’s reprocessing unit told the New York Times.

Japan asked BNFL to take back the fuel while a German utility shut a reactor running on the fuel and asked for compensation. And Denmark has called for a halt to all nuclear fuel reprocessing in northern Europe.

Joe Jacob, an Irish government junior minister, told the Dáil last February that the MOX demonstration facility had been closed since the revelations on MOX fuel falsification.

"The Japanese market represents a significant share of the projected market for the MOX fuel project and any loss of this market arising from that incident must undermine any economic justification for the plant," Jacob said.

Irish concern

In Ireland, public trust of Sellafield, which first opened in 1956, and of the nuclear industry in general, has always been low. In the 1970s, a widespread outcry prevented the Irish government from going ahead with its own plans to build a nuclear plant in Carnsore Point, Co. Wexford. But with Sellafield, the debate has been unrelenting — and passionate.

The Irish government seeks the closure of the plant, which now houses nuclear reprocessing, waste disposal, fuel production and power production facilities. Of particular concern to Ireland has been Sellafield’s Thorp plant, opened in 1994, which reprocesses spent fuel. Thorp is an acronym for thermal oxide reprocessing plant.

In the Dáil, following the revelations of the falsification of data at Sellafield, Jacob, minister of state at the department of Public Enterprise, said that among the conclusions of a recent report from the UK’s Nuclear Installations Inspectorate was the inspectorate’s belief that the Sellafield site lacked a high-quality safety-management system.

The report, Jacob told the Dáil, went on to state that the site does not have sufficient resources to implement an existing safety-management system, and that an effective and competent inspection, auditing and review system within the company was necessary.

Jacob said that Britain’s Nuclear Installations Inspectorate report on the storage of liquid waste reinforced the NII’s requirement that the waste be vitrified — solidified into glass — by 2015 at the latest and that BNFL should produce a schedule showing progress.

"Ireland’s concerns about the long-term storage of high-level waste in storage tanks at Sellafield have been made known to the UK on numerous occasions," Jacob said.

Irish pressure

Jacob added that he had recently taken up this issue with the UK secretary of state and deputy prime minister, John Prescott. "I will continue to exert maximum pressure on the UK to ensure the full commissioning of this plant does not proceed," Jacob said.

Meanwhile, radioactive discharges into the Irish Sea have long been a concern of Ireland, particularly among people and communities along the east coast. Among those who know firsthand of the concern is Jim Smith, from Boston. From 10 years, from 1986, he owned a house on the coast in Bray, Co. Wicklow.

"During the period that I owned the vacation home on the seafront, a lot of the residents and tourists were aware of the radioactivity and were reluctant to swim in the sea or eat fish," Smith said. "I think it was a situation that we all felt needed to be addressed, but the concerns remain after all those years.

"I do not think an Irish American in this country would put up with this, and why the Irish people put up with it is beyond me."

However, Jacob told the Dáil that between now and 2020 there should be "a virtual elimination of discharges into the Irish Sea."

Jacob said he would not hesitate to undertake appropriate litigation if he believed the UK government was not complying with the provisions of international law. "Unfortunately," he said, "the law at present . . . does not provide for the establishment of an international inspectorate which could verify the safety and management of the Sellafield site to the degree that we would wish.

"EU nuclear countries continue to cherish the sovereignty of their independent nuclear inspectorates."

Under further questioning in the Dáil, Jacob said that he had told British ministers, including the deputy prime minister, that the Irish government and the people of Ireland "want a total cessation of nuclear activities at Sellafield."

"That continues to be our demand," he said.

Sellafield, however, provides about 10,000 jobs and the plant’s closure would be devastating to the local economy, a factor that British politicians have undoubtedly been concerned about.

"Reputation Recovery"

Recent revelations concerning Sellafield has put British Nuclear Fuels on the defensive. According to news reports, an eight-page internal document, "Reputation Recovery," was prepared for BNFL chairman Hugh Collum just days after the NII published reports concluding there were systematic management failures at Sellafield.

News of the document emerged after Collum conceded before a House of Commons committee that the planned privatization of BNFL would have to be delayed because of uncertainties about its future with countries including Ireland, Denmark, Japan and Germany raising questions over its safety record.

Sinn Féin councilor Arthur Morgan, from Louth, confirmed to the Echo that he had a copy of the document. Morgan, who is also a member of the local Cooley Health and Environmental Group, said he was delighted to see in writing and from an internal document that BNFL was questioning its own future.

"I think it is more encouraging than any of the statements I have heard from politicians in recent weeks," he said.

It’s not only the recent revelations about failures and falsification at Sellafield that have some Irish politicians angry. One of the country’s youngest politicians, Wicklow TD Mildred Fox, 29, said she was "livid" about the treatment of a recent letter she sent to British Prime Minister Tony Blair expressing concern about the Sellafield plant.

The reply to Fox from Britain’s Department of Trade and Industry had been cleared by BNFL, according to a TV program "Dispatches," from Britain’s Channel Four.

Fox said BNFL had advised, "In reply to an Irish TD, we believe it is important to be assertive and not to appear to justify or apologize for the UK nuclear industry."

"It shows the influence that BNFL have over the government," Fox said. "I don’t expect to write to the prime minister and have a reply drafted by the very people I have asked him to investigate. It is clearly a case of the tale wagging the dog."

Minister Jacob, who’s from Wicklow, has been asked to raise the treatment of his constituency colleague with the British government.The Sellafield nuclear power complex in England is now the subject of a U.S. government review into its work for the Department of Energy.

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