BNFL and Russia

 

The prospect of British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL), the owner and operator of the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing plant in Cumbria, becoming involved in improving nuclear safety in Russia, does not inspire confidence. The company's record is far from impressive. It includes instances, not only of improper safety procedures and slipshod management, but also of deliberate and dangerous deceit. Just a month ago, the British health and safety executive announced that it intended to prosecute BNFL for failing to improve safety management structures at Sellafield.

The history of the plant has indicated that greater emphasis may have been placed on public relations imagery than in establishing the type of absolutely reliable structures needed for such a crucial nuclear operation. The change of nomenclature to Sellafield - after Windscale had become almost synonymous with pollution - was a typical example of the organisation's contemptuous attitude to the general public at the time. Since then, professional image-makers have taken over. Large sums have been spent on public relations but to little avail and the name Sellafield now carries far worse connotations than Windscale did.

Almost invariably, when the image-making effort began to show some results, new scandals arose to damage the reputation of the company and the reprocessing plant. In the latest of these, in March of this year, the British Nuclear Installations Inspectorate produced a report on BNFL which spelled out a catalogue of deceit, incompetence and irresponsibility. The report demonstrated deliberate falsification of quality checks on mixed oxide nuclear fuel being sent to Japan and Germany. The failure of supervisors to detect these falsifications made matters worse. The report also showed that procedures for control and supervision had been inadequate and that training of some staff had been minimal or non-existent.

That such a company should even be considered suitable to provide safety to Russian installations, is enough to make one's hair stand on end. While Britain's proposed contribution of £80 million sterling towards Russian nuclear safety does not specify BNFL as the prime operator of the safety programme, there does not appear to be another British company with pretensions towards expertise in this respect.

A report by the Norwegian environmental agency, Bellona, on the fate of the submarine Kursk, was supremely ironic on the state of the Barents Sea where the tragedy took place. The Barents, according to Bellona, has a low level of radioactivity and this does not come from Russian reactors. It is brought there instead by the Gulf Stream from Sellafield and the French counterpart at Cap de la Hague.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that Ireland's concern at Sellafield's abysmal safety record is shared by Denmark and supported by the other Nordic countries. One of the tasks for the company or companies which gain the contract to make Russia's nuclear industry and stockpiles safe, will be to work on the decommissioning of potentially dangerous installations. BNFL could gain invaluable experience, technique and credibility in this sphere, as well as important advance practice, by choosing Sellafield as its pilot-decommissioning project.