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Sellafield emergency exercise postponed - wrong weather

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

An on-site emergency exercise at Sellafield, scheduled for 4 November last year, was initially postponed when a real emergency unfolded in the form of a loss of coolant water to a number of Sellafield’s operating facilities when water supplies from the local lake at Wastwater were disrupted. It is not yet clear what caused the disruption or its duration. 

The planned Level 1 demonstration exercise “Magpie”, understood to have been based on a scenario whereby a truck carrying a load of plutonium contaminated material (PCM) had crashed over one of the site’s bridges, coincidentally damaging an important water pipe and posing a fire risk to the PCM, was postponed by the organisers in order to deal with the real water-loss event, and re-scheduled for 9th December. Come the day, the decision was taken to cancel the re-scheduled exercise altogether – because of inclement weather conditions (a prolonged freeze) and Sellafield’s Emergency Management Team being too busy with other work (preparing for another exercise some 4 months ahead).

Explanations for the abandonment of the ‘Magpie’ emergency exercise were provided to a local stakeholder group meeting on 7 April 2011 and drew disbelief from some members. Surely, the Emergency Management Team was not saying that Sellafield accidents could be expected to occur only on warm and sunny days and when emergency teams just happened to have time on their hands?

CORE’s spokesman Martin Forwood told the stakeholder meeting that the cancellation of any exercise was of significant concern, and later added that as there was little enough confidence in Sellafield’s ability to deal with a real accident on or offsite and to cope with public evacuations if necessary, the failure to take advantage of a practice exercise – under any conditions – was a missed opportunity that could prove costly and even fatal in the future. It was unacceptable that Sellafield’s emergency teams appeared unable to multi-task when the situation demanded.

As vividly played out in Japan recently, the loss of water supplies to nuclear facilities can have catastrophic results. For Sellafield, there would be dangerous implications for its reprocessing plants and spent fuel storage ponds, and particularly for its highly radioactive liquid High Level Waste (HLW) storage tanks that require 24/7 cooling and use water extracted from Wastwater as an emergency cooling supply. The lake is located some 11 kilometers from Sellafield, its water extracted via what is understood to be, for the most part, the original 50 year old piping.

The loss of coolant to the HLW tanks, leading to their overheating, catching fire and releasing a radioactive plume off-site, is designated as Sellafield’s ‘Reference Accident’ (the worst credible accident for the site) and forms the basis for West Cumbria’s Nuclear Emergency Plan.                                       

Source: CORE Briefing, 11 April 2011
Contact: Cumbrians Oppossed to a Radioactive Environment (CORE), Dry Hall, Broughton Mills, Broughton-in-Furness, Cumbria LA20 6AZ., U.K.
Tel:  +44 1229 716523