Roche receives RPII report on Sellafield visit

Date released: Apr 14 2005

Vigilance on Sellafield required for 150 years - RPII. RPII concerned on waste vitrification, increases in radioactive discharges, and Sellafield as a potential terrorist target.

While reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel at Sellafield is due to finish in 2012, this may be difficult to achieve, and Sellafield will still need significant investment for up to 150 years until the site is finally decommissioned, the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland (RPII) said today. The RPII launched the report of its September 2004 visit to the Sellafield facility and presented a copy to the Minister for the Environment, Heritage & Local Government, Dick Roche T.D.

In its conclusions, the RPII explains the activities at Sellafield which have the greatest potential to impact on Ireland, and highlights the particular challenges associated with each of these activities into the future. The RPII raises a number of concerns with regard to plant operation, radioactive discharges and terrorist threats. In the area of emergency preparedness, the report highlights recent initiatives that have led to increased co-operation between Ireland and the United Kingdom.

Speaking at the launch of the report, RPII Chief Executive Dr. Ann McGarry said “Since the RPII’s visit to Sellafield in 2000 to examine safety documents relating to the storage of high level waste, there have been significant changes at Sellafield. While some commercial activities are continuing, there is greater focus on dealing with the waste arising from the closure of Magnox stations across the UK and on managing legacy wastes. The UK nuclear regulators discussed in detail with us their approach to the determination of priorities and timescales for each of these activities and during our visit we witnessed the positive impact of their approach. Our overall impression was that a good start had been made, but that the scale of decommissioning works to be undertaken would present very real challenges to both the operators and regulators for many years to come.”

In welcoming the report, Minister Roche said “British nuclear safety, and in particular the activities at Sellafield, have long been a cause of concern for Ireland, and the RPII report shows that this is not going to change in the medium term. Recent dialogue between the two Governments has led to an increased level of co-operation and improved access to the site for Ireland, through the RPII. I am pleased that the Institute is in an improved position to make its expert observations and assessments and this will be a great aid to our overall objective of ensuring a safe decommissioning to the Sellafield site”.

The visit, which took place in late September 2004, came about as a result of regular meetings that take place between representatives of the Irish and British Governments. The purpose of the visit was to see at first-hand a number of on-site facilities of particular concern to Ireland and to explore the changing nature of operations at the site. Emergency planning arrangements were also discussed with BNFL and with representatives of Cumbria County Council.

From an Irish perspective, there are two ways in which Sellafield impacts on Ireland. These are storage of radioactive material at the site which has the potential to be dispersed as a result of an accident or terrorist incident, and the regulated discharge of radioactive material into the Irish Sea as a result of reprocessing.

The RPII highlights the hazards associated with liquid radioactive wastes in storage in the Highly Active Storage Tanks (HASTs), the spent nuclear fuel in storage awaiting reprocessing and the management of legacy wastes from previous operations now stored in a number of buildings across the Sellafield site. The vitrification process, whereby liquid wastes are converted to a solid form by incorporation into a glass matrix, is identified as one of the key processes in bringing reprocessing to an end. According to Dr. McGarry “the vitrification process is key to ensuring that the Sellafield site is more resistant to accidents or terrorist incidents and that the overall hazard at the Sellafield site is reduced. We know that the two older vitrification lines have not always operated to full capacity and any significant down-time would almost certainly impact on current timetables”.

The RPII also draws attention to the potential for increases in the rate of discharge of certain radionuclides into the Irish Sea. This is linked to the increased throughput of spent nuclear fuels being reprocessed in recent years. The management of legacy wastes and the eventual decommissioning of the Sellafield site may also give rise to as yet unspecified discharges. While highlighting these issues, the RPII also points out that significant reductions in discharges of technetium-99 have recently taken place following the introduction of new abatement technology.

The report addresses the implications for Ireland of a significant release of radioactivity to the environment, whether as a result of an accident or terrorist incident. “While the possibility of an accident is thankfully small, we spent considerable time during the visit discussing accident scenarios and the implications for Ireland of any significant release of radioactivity. On the basis of the information supplied to the RPII, the potential contamination levels in Ireland arising from a serious accident or incident at Sellafield could be such that the Irish authorities could have to intervene to reduce contamination in the foodchain”. Dr. McGarry said. The RPII monitors the changing situation at all UK nuclear sites on an on-going basis and up-dates its advice to Government in relation to emergency preparedness arrangements as necessary.

A full copy of the report is available on the  website.

Notes to Editors:
BNFL Sellafield is a 700-acre nuclear site in Cumbria in the North West of England. The site is located close to the Irish Sea and at its closest point (Clogher Head, Co. Louth) is approximately 112 miles from the Irish coastline.

In the late 1940’s work commenced at the site on the construction of two nuclear ‘piles’ for the production of plutonium for military use. These are commonly referred to as the Windscale piles, one of which suffered a serious fire in 1957. Electricity production commenced at the site in 1956 when the first of four Calder Hall nuclear reactors came into operation. The last of these closed down in March 2003. Sellafield was also the site of an experimental reactor, the Windscale Advanced Gas-cooled Reactor (WAGR), which is being decommissioned presently.

Today the main activities at BNFL Sellafield include the storage and reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel, the storage of plutonium and uranium, the fabrication of mixed oxide (MOX) fuel and decommissioning activities.

Previous non-commercial operations that have ceased have resulted in large amounts of radioactive waste being stored in various buildings around the BNFL Sellafield site. These are often referred to as ‘legacy wastes’. The clean-up of these facilities represents a major challenge that has begun to be addressed and will be the primary focus of future activities at BNFL Sellafield once commercial reprocessing operations come to an end.