Sellafield nuclear waste ponds can never be modernised, says inspector


STORAGE PONDS for nuclear waste at Sellafield, some up to 50 years old, can never be brought up to modern standards, but Sellafield Ltd, the company which runs the site, is making acceptable progress in removing the radioactive waste, Britain’s top nuclear inspector has declared.

After an inquiry prompted by the Fukushima disaster in Japan, Dr Mike Weightman said he found no reason to block the British government’s desire to build eight nuclear stations to replace those closing over the next decade.

“I remain confident that our UK nuclear facilities have no fundamental safety weaknesses, but we are not complacent. No matter how high our standards, the quest for improvement must never stop,” he said.

In his 300-page report, Dr Weightman said Sellafield stored “a large inventory” of radioactive material, some of which was “stored in a non-passive form in facilities which do not meet modern design requirements”.

Fukushima “reinforces the need for the [British] government, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority and Sellafield to continue to pursue the legacy ponds and silos remediation and retrievals programme with utmost vigour and determination”.

The Office of Nuclear Regulation (ONR) has used legal powers to require Sellafield “to progressively reduce the hazard by undertaking waste retrievals and to decommission the facilities as soon as reasonably practicable”, it emerged in the report.

Sellafield Ltd, Britain’s Nuclear Decommissioning Authority which owns Sellafield, and the British government “all regard urgent progress with the legacy ponds and silos remediation and retrievals programme as a national priority”.

“This priority is reinforced by the example of the Fukushima accident, where the vulnerabilities of an older plant were not sufficiently recognised and addressed,” said Dr Weightman, who produced an interim report in May.

It said the heat-generating capability of the radioactive material stored in the Sellafield ponds was lower than fuel in an operating nuclear power plant and thus accident scenarios generally developed over longer timescales than those modelled for nuclear power plants.

Sellafield’s management was reviewing the Cumbrian plant’s cooling, ventilation, inerting and containment systems and “the availability and reliability of these systems under accident conditions”, but the work had “yet to be completed”.

“It is evident from Office of Nuclear Regulation Sellafield Limited interactions that Sellafield Limited is now starting to identify a number of improvements and additional contingency measures for facilities across the site and the supporting infrastructure systems.

“For many of the older legacy facilities, it has been recognised by Sellafield Limited and ONR that the facilities are not as robust as the newer facilities built to modern design standards, hence the main focus for the site must remain the retrieval of the radioactive inventory from these facilities and the processing of the material into safer waste forms,” he reported. “In the meantime, contingency measures are put in place.”

Dr Weightman’s decision to produce a final report before the full investigation into the Fukushima disaster is known led to sharp criticism last night from Greenpeace, which called his findings “rushed”.

“It’s designed with one objective – to give the green light to a new generation of nuclear power stations, irrespective of the safety, environmental or rising financial costs of those nuclear stations,” official Louise Hutchins said.

Secretary of state for energy and climate change Chris Huhne is to move ahead with plans to establish the ONR as a statutory body, while Dr Weightman is to report within a year on the progress industry is making to improve standards.

Dr Weightman has asked all existing operators and those planning new reactors to examine emergency planning, plant layout, flood defences and other issues.

The British nuclear industry received a blow a fortnight ago after Scottish and Southern Electricity pulled out of a multibillion investment to build up to three nuclear reactors at Sellafield. The company will instead favour wind and biomass power generation.