Plant closure at Sellafield


AN ANNOUNCEMENT that the Mox nuclear reprocessing plant at Sellafield will close later this year has been welcomed by Irish anti-nuclear campaigners. A loss of contracts following meltdown of nuclear reactors at the Fukushima power station in Japan was given as justification. But this project has been a financial and operational disaster from the start. In nine years it cost the British taxpayer more than £1 billion and its throughput was a fraction of that promised. In spite of that, pressure groups are calling for construction of a larger, more expensive Mox plant at the site.

This is not the only reprocessing facility at Sellafield. An accident-prone Thorp plant is in the process of being decommissioned at a cost of £6.5 billion. Eleven years ago, the Irish government joined with five Nordic states in campaigning against the opening of this facility. They opposed it at a United Nations Law of the Sea Tribunal because of possible pollution to the oceans. They objected on the grounds that it could become a target for international terrorists. Representations were rebuffed. But, as a concession, officials at the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland (RPII) were allowed to inspect the site and were to be notified of any accidents. In 2004, a major leak of radioactive material occurred. It was contained within the Thorp facility and did not directly threaten public health. The leak forced a suspension of operations to recover plutonium and uranium from spent nuclear fuel. Later, it was found that a second, enormous leak of radioactive waste to an internal containment chamber had gone on for nine months without being detected. An official inquiry criticised a complacent managerial and safety culture. A fine of half a million pounds was imposed for breaches of health and safety laws.

Even before that, RPII chief executive Ann McGarry had expressed concern about the storage of highly active liquid radioactive wastes at the site. An accident there, she said, could contaminate the food chain in Ireland and have serious economic consequences. In spite of Japan’s experience, the British government appears determined to increase its electricity generating capacity from nuclear energy. Last month, it announced that a new plant will be built at Sellafield before 2025. A decision on what to do with the huge stockpiles of plutonium on the site there will be taken later this year. Before that happens, the Government should make forceful diplomatic and public representations to ensure meaningful safeguards are put in place, given the failures of the past.