Secret report reveals catalogue of blunders at Sellafield

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The Independent Online

The whistleblowing document says that the plant - hitherto thought to be one of the better-run ones at the controversial Cumbrian complex - is "potentially dangerous" and is "becoming difficult to operate properly". One of its section headings reads: "Homer Simpson works at Sellafield".

The revelations could not come at a worse time for the Government and the nuclear industry. Tony Blair is pressing for the building of new reactors in Britain, against stiff cabinet opposition, after announcing a review of the issue in his Labour Party conference speech on Tuesday.

And on Thursday British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL), which runs Sellafield, decided to try to sell off almost all its remaining business, including the treatment plant. The document is a shocking indictment of the £250m waste vitrification plant (WVP), which binds the most highly radioactive and dangerous waste produced by the nuclear industry in glass so it can be stored and disposed of easily.

The whistleblowing, meticulously referenced report, recently compiled by a manager, says the problems at the plant are so great that the Government forced BNFL to call in its major competitor, the French firm Cogema, "to help address serious concerns about how WVP is run". It adds: "BNFL claims its research into the vitrification process proves that the plant is safe and will allow the foreign waste to be returned to its country of origin. Yet BNFL's own research papers and audits show these claims are false."

It adds: "The scientific basis for control of the plant relies at best on interpretation and at worst on guesswork" and that "reports from employees on the site reveal a catalogue of dubious practices".

It goes on: "The low morale is endemic ... Control cables to vital robotic arms in the WVP have been cut, waste drums that should hold solid glass have been accidentally filled with highly active liquid waste, faults in safety mechanisms are not reported properly, the plant has become driven by production targets so much that it is becoming difficult to operate properly.

"Concerns raised at formal quality review committees are referred to secret 'black file' meetings, where no minutes or records are ever made, and no one is held to account. When pushed the senior managers have appeared to rely on arrogance or ... technical jargon to baffle non-experts, including government watchdogs."

It reports that over 20 crucibles used to make the highly radioactive glass have split while in use, and that an inspection of drums filled with the radioactive waste three years ago found up to a third were not safe to be returned to customers for disposal.

Yesterday the independent nuclear expert John Large said that until now he had thought the plant one of the better run ones at the complex, but that it now appeared to be "yet another management failure".

BNFL said last night: "Safety is our number-one priority and all our activities on site are not only monitored by plant management, but overseen by our regulators."

It said that though it was "desirable" to avoid its crucibles splitting this presented "no safety concerns", and that over the past two years all but one of its containers had been certified as "returnable". It denied that "secret black-file meetings" took place.