Erik Solheim is to visit the UK’s Sellafield nuclear reprocessing facility next month to discuss the plant’s accident risks and safety problems.
A catalogue of concerns
A new report from the Norwegian Radiation Protection Authority shows an accident could disperse one percent of the facility’s total liquid radioactive waste.
The prevailing westerlies would send fallout seven times worse than Chernobyl over to Norway. An accident today would have major implications, especially for western Norway’s food industry.
Last week, Mayor of Stavanger Leif Johan Sevland, and Monica Mæland, head of Bergen City Council, sent Minister Solheim a letter expressing their concerns at the report’s conclusions, saying they find “the repercussions outlined in the report are extremely disturbing.”
Minister of the Environment Erik Solheim tells The Foreigner in an email he is “deeply concerned over the potential consequences for Norway if something really goes wrong at Sellafield. The predicted consequences are severe. I have not seen any assessment of what could happen to UK territory, but I find it obvious that we share a strong common interest in reducing this risk as fast as possible.”
There have been a number of serious incidents at the facility. In 1957, a major fire in Sellafield’s (previously-known as Windscale) Number one reactor spewed an unspecified amount of radioactive iodine 131 vapour into the atmosphere, causing a ban to be imposed on the sale of local milk within a 30-mile radius.
1983 was the year of the so-called “Beach Discharge Incident”. A leak resulted in the closure of a 10-mile stretch of Cumbrian coast between St. Bees and Eskmeals following the release of high radioactive discharges containing ruthenium and rhodium 106. Warnings were issued against swimming in the sea. Accidents in 2005 and 2009 add to the list.
Sellafield’s potential dangers relate to its amounts of high-level radioactive waste, known as “highly-active liquor” (HAL), which needs constant cooling to prevent an explosion.
According to Nils Bøhmer, nuclear physicist at the Bellona Foundation, 900 tons are stored in tanks at the facility. Some of the radioactive waste is mixed with sand to be turned into glass. However, only one of three condensers used in the process is working. Two are shut down due to corrosion.
“The plant is not working at full capacity. Although there are plans to replace the other two, this will take some years. Reprocessing is still continuing,” he says, calling for this to be stopped and the immediate emptying of the oldest storage tanks.
According to a press release, personnel at the plant “are committed to continuing this work [of reducing the levels of HAL stocks] as a priority in line with the strategic importance placed on it by the NDA (Nuclear Decommissioning Authority) and in co-operation with the regulator. We are determined to minimise the risk to the public and environment by reducing HAL stocks on the Sellafield site, which are currently below the limits specified by our regulators. The NRPA has been careful to state that its report assesses a purely hypothetical situation at Sellafield and deliberately chooses a worst-case scenario accident that is of very low probability.”
Meanwhile, Minister Solheim is to discuss the HAL issue and security measures at the plant when he visits Sellafield next month together with Mayor Sevland and Councillor Mæland, saying, “Britain must now ensure it reduces the quantities of highly radioactive liquid nuclear waste stored at Sellafield as soon as possible.”
“I have just sent a letter to Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, Chris Huhne to inform him personally about the Norwegian Radiation Protection Authority’s report and its conclusions regarding the potential consequences for Norway. In this letter, I urge Mr. Huhne to present a concrete plan describing measures and targets for the reduction of liquid high-level waste stored at Sellafield. I also urge him to consider a moratorium on further reprocessing until the present inventory of such waste has been encapsulated in glass to make is passively safe.”
The minister concludes, warning of the dangers of complacency.
“Japan is an important reminder that unexpected and unlikely things sometimes happen, and that the consequences can be disastrous when potentially dangerous facilities are hit. This should be a reminder for all facilities that represent a major risk if something goes really wrong, including Sellafield.”