Sellafield: still the dirty old man of Europe - discharges set to breach marine pollution targets

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

A report published February 17 by CORE (Cumbrians Opposed to a Radioactive Environment) exposes Sellafield’s plans for substantial increases in radioactive discharges to the Irish Sea over the coming decade.

The rate of discharge from planned reprocessing operations, and subsequent concentrations of radioactivity in the marine environment, will breach international commitments and targets agreed by the UK Government in 1998 at an OSPAR (Oslo-Paris) Convention meeting in Portugal. As a contracting party, the Government committed to the ‘progressive and substantial reduction in radioactive discharges so that by the year 2020, concentrations of (man-made) radioactivity in the marine environment, above historic levels, were ‘close to zero’.

CORE’s report reveals that, despite an awareness of the threat posed to those commitments by its current plans for Sellafield – including the threat of legal action by international governments - site owner the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) has been prepared to adopt contingency plans if necessary, including an agreement ‘not to meet the OSPAR deadline’.

Spokesman for CORE, Martin Forwood said: "The NDA’s cavalier hit or miss approach to meeting UK commitments is breathtakingly complacent. Unless action is taken now, simple arithmetic dictates that if its work program is to be completed by the reprocessing plants’ scheduled closure dates, the rate of reprocessing must be significantly raised above anything achieved recently - with a correspondingly progressive and substantial increase in radioactive discharges that contravenes the commitment made in 1998 to reduce discharges”.

Radioactive discharges to the Irish Sea, including plutonium, are dominated by those from Sellafield’s two reprocessing plants B205 and the Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant (THORP), particularly the former. The accepted correlation between annual reprocessing rates and subsequent radioactive discharge levels is amply demonstrated by the recent reduction in discharges from the site following several years of unusually low reprocessing rates.

This recent reduction however will be completely reversed by NDA plans that include the reprocessing of some 4700 tons of spent fuel from the UK’s magnox reactors in B205 in the next 6 years - requiring a rate more than double that achieved over the last 5 years – and the reprocessing of at least 3700 tons of spent fuel, mostly from the UK’s Advanced Gas Cooled reactors (AGR) but also including 600 tons of overseas fuel in THORP whose operational life has now been extended by 10 years to 2020.

CORE’s assessment also highlights the extra pressure piled on the ageing B205 reprocessing plant, already under the tightest of schedules, by the extensions recently approved for the Wylfa and Oldbury power stations – a complete U-turn on earlier decisions, and one that means more magnox fuel than necessary must now be reprocessed.

The assessment further shows that, coupled with NDA indecision on whether or not to reprocess part or all of thousands of tons of AGR fuel not specifically contracted for reprocessing, a range of technical issues currently restricting Sellafield operations - particularly the lack of capacity to treat the highly radioactive liquid wastes produced by reprocessing – could see reprocessing extended beyond its scheduled end-date of 2020.

CORE’s spokesman added: “The rise in radioactive discharges from what increasingly resembles a crash program of reprocessing will not only breach UK commitments to OSPAR but also pose a potent threat to international waters. Meeting its commitments and reducing that threat could be resolved by the urgent adoption of alternatives to reprocessing – though Government and NDA addiction to reprocessing has so far prevented positive action on alternatives being pursued - and only then as a contingency in the event of a chronic failure of the reprocessing plant rather than as a constructive means of reducing discharges”.

The Government view, that the UK is ‘on course’ to meet its commitments is made in its 2009 UK Radioactive Discharge Strategy report, mirrors OSPAR’s view that progress is being made towards meeting its targets of discharge reductions. Based almost entirely on the reductions that have followed Sellafield’s recent poor reprocessing performance, both views ignore, or are oblivious to, the implications of the NDA’s escalated reprocessing plans. Further, weaknesses in OSPAR procedures for monitoring and sampling the marine environment could, if unresolved, provide convenient loopholes through which claims of success in meeting targets might be made when OSPAR’s final analysis is undertaken in 2020.

Martin Forwood further commented that: “The political will and courage needed to honour UK’s international commitments is conspicuous by its absence. Officialdom is sleepwalking towards a situation which, unless avoiding action is taken now, will see commitments broken and the UK once again earning the Dirty Old Man of Europe tag”.

At the 1998 meeting of OSPAR at Sintra in Portugal, the then UK Minister John Prescott signed up to what were described as groundbreaking commitments for action on radioactive discharges, stating “I was ashamed of Britain’s record in the past but now we have shed the tag of Dirty old Man of Europe and have joined the family of nations”.

The CORE report 'Sellafield – Breaching International Treaty Targets on Radioactive Marine Pollution' is available via CORE

Source and contact: CORE, Dry Hall, Broughton Mills, Broughton-in-Furness, Cumbria LA20 6AZ. United Kingdom, Tel: + 44 1229 716523