Fresh charge over safety risk at Sellafield

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Sellafield's nuclear reprocessing plant is to be prosecuted for allegedly failing to improve the safety of equipment which is used to gauge radioactivity.

Sellafield's nuclear reprocessing plant is to be prosecuted for allegedly failing to improve the safety of equipment which is used to gauge radioactivity.

The Health and Safety Executive has decided to take the troubled plant to court after warning British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL) in March that it should improve safety measures. The watchdog alleges that some of the so-called sealed sources at Sellafield are missing and others are not properly registered.

It will be the second time this year that the HSE has prosecuted the Cumbrian plant.

The sealed source, a piece of equipment encased in metal or plastic, which holds a small quantity of radioactivity, is used to test other equipment for detecting or measuring radioactivity. There are about 3,500 sources in 180 sealed source stores on the Sellafield site.

The Government's nuclear safety watchdog, the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate (NII), served a notice on BNFL in the spring saying it had to improve management of the equipment. BNFL will appear before magistrates at Whitehaven, Cumbria, on 24 August, following NII allegations that it has not carried out the improvements.

In June Whitehaven magistrates had fined BNFL £40,000 and ordered £35,000 costs after it breached safety rules.

There has also been a high-level management shake-up in the company after a damning NII report raised serious concerns over a lack of a safety culture at the plant. False data on pellets of uranium and plutonium in mixed-oxide nuclear fuel were thought to originate with BNFL workers. Subsequently, Japan and Germany, two of the firm's biggest customers, suspended contracts.

BNFL has always insisted the data was correct, but now the Government has agreed to take the fuel back from the purchasers, in the next two or three years. To do this, Britain will first have to get the go-ahead from every country the nuclear fuel could pass in transit.

Earlier this year, the planned privatisation of BNFL was suspended. It will not proceed now until the latter half of 2002, well beyond the next general election.

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