(December 15, 2006) At Carlisle Crown Court, British Nuclear Group (BNG) was fined £500,000 (currently about 575.000 Euro) for the accident in April last year at Sellafield's THORP. The accident was classified at Level 3 on the International Nuclear Event Scale, the worst recorded accident at Sellafield for many years.
(650.5775) Laka Foundation - BNG, who operate Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant (THORP) under contract to site owners the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA), had pleaded guilty in an initial hearing at Whitehaven Magistrates Court earlier this year to three charges brought by the Health & Safety Executive (HSE). The charges, under the Nuclear Installations Act 1965, related to breaches of Sellafield site licence conditions, and were summarized by HSE as (i) failing to make and comply with written instructions, (ii) failing to ensure that safety systems are in good working order and (iii) failing to ensure that radioactive material is contained and, if leaks occur, that they are detected and reported.
In fining BNG, Judge Openshaw told the Court that as BNG had pleaded guilty to the offences, he was reducing what he considered to be an appropriate level of fine of £750,000 to £500,000. In reminding the Court of the 'cumulative failures' and the 'worker culture of tolerating alarms' that had lead to the accident, he added that BNG's failure to detect the leak 'probably within days' rather than 8 months was a serious failure worthy of condemnation.
The accident, reported to the HSE's Nuclear Installations Inspectorate (NII) on April 20, 2005, entailed the undetected spillage of 83,000 litres of highly radioactive dissolved nuclear fuel and nitric acid over an estimated 8 month period from fractured pipework in the plant's Feed Clarification Cell. The plant was closed immediately and has remained shut down since then. During the closure, which has seen 18 months of reprocessing business put on hold, 2 improvement notices and 49 recommendations have been served on BNG by the NII along with a further 18 recommendations imposed by BNG following its own Board of Investigation into the accident..
At the time of the accident, (THORP's 11th year), the plant was running almost 3 years behind schedule, with just 5729 tonnes of spent fuel reprocessed from a total of 7000 tonnes originally scheduled for completion in the first 10 years of operation (the baseload). The outstanding fuel includes over 700 tonnes of foreign fuel, with the remainder being UK fuel from British Energy's (BE) Advanced Gas Cooled reactor stations. If and when these 'baseload' contracts are completed, a further volume of fuel (post-baseload), largely from BE, is also contracted for reprocessing at THORP.
Restart of the plant, already re-scheduled a number of times, is now set for early 2007, providing all required recommendations have been 'closed out' to the satisfaction of the NII and with the agreement of the NDA. THORP's future however currently remains under close review by the NDA and by the Government who will make the final decision as to whether further reprocessing at the plant can be justified.
The costs of the accident, not yet fully quantified, have been put variously between £50M and hundreds of £M. Modifications (rather than repairs) to THORP's damaged Cell, now completed, will allow an eventual re-start of the plant by by-passing the damaged equipment and pipework. As a result of the modified system, THORP's future throughput rate is expected to be limited to well below the plant's design specification.
Martin Forwood added: "We have major concerns about the restart of THORP given that the systems and pipework that will be used share exactly the same history as that which failed so comprehensively during the accident from metal fatigue and other stresses. As the plant can never again operate as originally designed, there are no good grounds for resuscitating this White Elelephant. We will continue to call for its immediate closure".
More Sellafield News:
Reprocessing at the Sellafield complex has been halted completely early December as a safety precaution following discovery that radioactivity has been leaking into an evaporator's cooling water. This means Magnox reprocessing will not be able to restart until the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate gives the all-clear, which is not expected before January.
Meanwhile, British Nuclear Group has signed a new MOX fuel supply contract with German utility EnBW kernkraft, for the supply and transport of MOX fuel to the Neckarwestheim 2 reactor. It also requires EnBW to commit to convert all the plutonium arising from their reprocessing contract at Sellafield into MOX. But this presumably means BNG has to get the Sellafield MOX-plant and THORP working properly.
Sources: CORE Press Release, 16 October 2006 / Whitehaven News, 8 December 2006 / Renew, the NATTA newsletter # 164, Nov/Dec 2006
Contact: CORE, 98 Church Street, Barrow In Furness, Cumbria LA14 2HT, U.K.
Tel: +44 (0)1229 833851; Fax: +44 (0)1229 812239