Greens call Sellafield assurance meaningless


The latest Sellafield accident shows that the insistence by British Nuclear Fuels that it can operate to the most demanding international standards for dealing with nuclear waste is meaningless, the Green Party has claimed.

The Green MEP, Ms Nuala Ahern, said yesterday BNFL had given various assurances at the recent OSPAR Convention meeting on marine pollution, but after Monday's accident it was "once again back to routine accidents" at the reprocessing facility.

Her criticism came as the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland (RPII) sought more details from the UK Nuclear Installations Inspectorate on the release of highly toxic plutonium which forced the evacuation of 72 workers from a laboratory. It is Irish policy to seek full information on Sellafied incidents.

BNFL's playing down of the incident, notably its suggestion that contamination of a worker was simply removed by soap and water, smacked of "the kind of Dad's Army civil defence from the 1950s," Ms Ahern said. This was an extraordinary approach.

BNFL had referred to scientific evidence at the OSPAR meeting suggesting it was perfectly capable of operating to best procedures, she said. "Those assurances to the international community now ring very hollow."

Despite the British government's declaration of intent to curb nuclear waste emanating from the plant, the latest accident indicated it was not holding BNFL sufficiently to account. OSPAR, Ms Ahern said, had shown up Ireland also, as the Government was not holding its British counterpart to account on this issue.

"At this point, the Government is trailing behind Nordic countries in indicating our concerns and in producing scientific evidence about the effects of the plant on the environment. Ireland should be to the forefront, not Norway, Sweden and Denmark. The onus is on us, being next to the facility, to make a more forceful case," she said.

The RPII chief executive, Dr Tom O'Flaherty, confirmed he had been briefed on the latest Sellafield accident by nuclear inspectors attached to the UK Health and Safety Executive.

A laboratory worker at the "B33 MOX Demonstration Facility", where an advanced fuel mix combining uranium and plutonium is made, was using "a glove box" when the glove was torn and contamination resulted, he said. Alarms immediately went off. The box is a sealed chamber with special glove compartments to allow work from the exterior on material inside it.

Dr O'Flaherty said while the accident might be rated "very low" on the international scale of nuclear incidents, and would have no direct bearing on Ireland, it underlined the need for the UK authorities to press for the highest level of vigilance.

Meanwhile, the Minister of State at the Department of Public Enterprise, Mr Joe Jacob, who has responsibility for Sellafield, noted that Monday's accident was the second one, in a week at the plant. The earlier one, on Monday July 27th, was at Calder Hall Reactor 3, which had been shut down that day for routine maintenance.

After de-pressurisation of the reactor, it was found the moisture content in one of its cooling circuits had breached operating limits and increased risk of contamination. The moisture was subsequently reduced.