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Sellafield leaks: How alarmed should we be about reports of discharge at nuclear waste plant?

There is more than a touch of the ‘known unknowns’ made infamous by Donald Rumsfeld about this. And that’s worrying

This week the Guardian has been running a series of exposés about safety at Sellafield, the nuclear waste reprocessing plant on the west coast of Cumbria, some 130km from Co Down as the crow flies – or as the wind sometimes blows.

The reports – if they are accurate – don’t paint a pretty picture of the state of the 70-year-old nuclear site formerly known as Windscale. It has been home to several nuclear reactors – one of which caught fire in 1957, spreading radioactivity across Europe – and was used to manufacture plutonium for the UK’s nuclear weapons. It now reprocesses and stores nuclear waste from the UK and elsewhere.

Perhaps the most worrying claim is that one facility on the site – the Magnox swarf storage silo (MSSS) – is leaking radioactive liquid at a rate of 2.3 to 2.5 cubic metres per day and will most likely continue to do so until 2050. The silo was built between 1964 and 1983 and has not been in active use since the 1990s, according to the paper. It started leaking in the 1970s.

A leak of radioactive liquid sounds like a serious thing. Alarmingly, no one seems to have a real handle on how serious it is, with the Office of Nuclear Recovery (ONR) – the UK regulator – saying it could have “potentially significant consequences” if it gathers pace.


According to the Guardian, nuclear inspectors say it’s not possible to establish how many leaks there are in the silo, so instead guesswork and modelling is being used to work out the risks to the public and workers on the site.

The MSSS is just one storage facility on the 6sq km site. The difficulty of assessing the level of risk and the time and money required to clean up Sellafield is highlighted by another facility mentioned in the reports. Called B30, it’s a pond the size of three Olympic swimming pools containing nuclear fuel rods.

Again, according to the Guardian, it cost £1.5 billion and 15 years just to get it to the stage where decommissioning could even begin. The reason the work is so slow is down to the nature of the problem – radioactivity. Workers are restricted to 30 minutes a day on site due to the risk of radiation exposure, which also quickly degrades the robotic equipment they are using. It is expected to take another 10 years to drain the pond, with demolition scheduled sometime in the 2050s.

Cleaning up the Sellafield site – which will eventually see all the nuclear waste removed to underground storage – is expected to take until 2130 and the cost appears unquantifiable. The current estimate for cleaning up the UK’s 17 nuclear sites is £263 billion, give or take €100 billion.

And the reported problems at Sellafield don’t appear to stop with the inherently dangerous but necessary task of nuclear decommissioning. The Guardian investigation uncovered what it says are serious cyber security breaches at the plant, which have resulted in the ONR putting the site into a “special measures” designation. According to the reports, its systems have been hacked into by cyber groups closely linked to Russia and China, going back as far as 2015. What important information was obtained, if any, is unknown.

The UK government said it has no records or evidence of a successful cyber attack by state actors. “Our monitoring systems are robust and we have a high degree of confidence that no such malware exists on our system,” a statement said.

“This was confirmed to the Guardian well in advance of publication, along with rebuttals to a number of other inaccuracies in their reporting.”

The ONR also said it had seen “no evidence that Sellafield’s systems have been hacked by state actors in the way described in the report” but added that “in relation to cyber security, Sellafield Ltd is currently not meeting certain high standards that we require, which is why we have placed them under significantly enhanced attention”.

The newspaper also said there are problems around issues of fire safety, asbestos and workplace culture. Sellafield for its part said the claims about workplace culture largely related to one individual, and added “we have been open about historical cultural issues and our focus on addressing them. Our regulator has confirmed that there is no risk to public safety as a result of these issues.”

Still, these reports could give the impression that the UK’s approach to storing and reprocessing its nuclear waste is a bit shambolic. The UK would appear to be in something of a race against time to get its nuclear waste underground before the current storage facilities exceed their planned lifespans and potentially fail, with disastrous consequences. It appears that billions are being spent each year just to maintain the existing containment structures. Sellafield is running to stand still.

Modelling has shown that wind-borne radiation released at Sellafield would reach Norway in 12 hours on the prevailing southwest winds. If they blew the other way – as they often do – it would be here in under half that time.

So how worried should we be in Ireland? There is more than a touch of the “known unknowns” vented by late former US secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld about this.

One Norwegian diplomat described Sellafield as being run on a shoestring budget without transparency.

The Irish Government has come under pressure to clarify what it knows about safety at Sellafield. The response has been along the lines of “nothing to see here”. It has said there are no “significant matters” that should cause concern. Likewise, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said it had been kept appraised of a leak at the facility which posed “negligible risk” to the Irish public. It seems a rather sanguine view compared to the ONR’s warning of “potentially significant consequences” from the same leak.

What is not clear – and needs to be spelt out – is the basis on which the Government and the EPA have reached these reassuring positions.