A major accident at Sellafield could not happen, BNFL tells conference


A major accident at the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing plant "could not happen" because of the safety controls in place, the director of health, safety and environment at the plant told a weekend conference in Drogheda, Co Louth.

The statement was part of a detailed submission to the conference by British Nuclear Fuels Ltd, (BNFL). It was the first time in many years the company had attended a public meeting in the Republic.

Two BNFL executives told the conference - organised by a former Drogheda mayor, Mr Fergus O'Dowd (FG) - that none of the company's activities was more important than the "health and safety of its employees, its contractors, the general public and the protection of the environment".

In response to questions about radioactive discharges into the Irish Sea, Mr David Coulston, BNFL's health, safety and environment director, said he and the plant's employees were "happy to eat fish from the Irish Sea" and liquid discharges into the sea posed no health risk.

He said there was no comparison between the Chernobyl plant in Ukraine and the Sellafield plant in Cumbria. He compared the likelihood of a major accident at Sellafield with "two jumbo jets crashing right above Wembley, when the Cup Final is taking place; in other words it just won't happen".

Mr Coulston, who has worked with BNFL since 1971, confirmed the Sellafield plant was seeking an increase in the limit on how much "aerial discharges" it was allowed to make annually. He said BNFL was looking for no more than a 0.04 per cent increase in this limit.

The BNFL presentation was followed by some sharp exchanges between the audience and its executives.

Ms Grace McGlynn, the company's head of public affairs, said it pursued "a policy of openness and honesty". But many people in the audience said not enough information was available about accidents in the plant over the years.

Mr Coulston was asked about "the worst case scenario", what exactly would happen if an accident occurred. He said he would "not conjecture on such a subject", insisting the plant "was designed to prevent accidents". He added that shutting down the plant in an emergency could start within minutes.

Mr John Bowler, an anti nuclear campaigner with Greenpeace, said the plant "posed an unacceptable risk to Ireland", and recent findings of high radioactive traces in lobsters in the sea around Cumbria were "alarming". He said the traces were 14 times the EU average and "yet BNFL are looking to be allowed increase their discharges".

Mr Martin Forwood, spokesman for CoRE, a Cumbrian based group opposed to Sellafield, said "reprocessing nuclear waste" made no economic sense. He said the THORP (thermal oxide reprocessing plant) facility was behind schedule and claimed it would be a "serious loss maker". To reach targets set by BNFL, it would have to reprocess 900 tonnes per year and this would place "great strain" on the plant.

Ms McGlynn said the company had offered to present its case to the Minister for the Environment, Mr Howlin, and the party political leaders, but these offers had "unfortunately" been turned down.

Members of the audience expressed anger that the BNFI representatives would not reveal details about the plant's emergency plan. One woman, responding to Mr Coulston's assertion that naturally occurring radon gas posed a greater risk than radioactive contamination from Sellafield, said: "You don't find radon in your food".

A number of young people in the audience said the risk the plant presented was "just too much" and it should be closed. The Green Party TD, Mr Trevor Sargent, said alternative sources of energy should be examined. The BNFL group, which had set up a stand outside the main conference hall earlier in the day, did not stay for the second half of the conference.

. The forum was chaired by the Irish Times Environment Correspondent, Frank McDonald.