BNFL fined over Sellafield worker's radiation dose

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British Nuclear Fuels was fined pounds 25,000 yesterday after admitting "serious and significant" failures in safety that left a worker at its Sellafield plant contaminated with radioactivity.

Carlisle Crown Court was told that the company's system of controlling the amount of contamination from plutonium to which a 53-year-old contractor was exposed while working in its main fuel separation area had failed. BNFL was also ordered to pay pounds 16,104 costs after pleading guilty to a breach of safety regulations.

Henry Globe QC, for the prosecution, said it was "fortuitous" that plater James Martin had only received a relatively low dose of radioactivity as he worked to replace bolts on a ventilation duct without proper protective clothing in June 1994. A partly-legible work permit had failed to state that Mr Martin should have been wearing gloves and a mask.

And there were a series of other errors in the permit, made worse by an operation supervisor's failure to inspect the area before work started and a company health monitor who did not know she should have been there at all times. A temporary drainage bottle with which Mr Martin came into contact had been rigged up on the duct to cope with a leak and had been left "incomplete, unmarked and insecure" for 18 months, Mr Globe said.

"Individually the failures were of differing importance. Collectively, though, they have produced a serious and significant failure to discharge the statutory duty owed by the defendants to Mr Martin."

After it was discovered that he had become contaminated, changing-room staff wrongly allowed him to put back on his radioactive clothing before going to the surgery in the Cumbrian plant, increasing the risk of contamination spreading.

Mr Martin panicked when a checking instrument had "gone off the scale" and suffered episodes of acute anxiety after the incident, Mr Globe said.

In a statement after the hearing BNFL said it recognised that compliance with safety procedures was not up to its "usually high standards". It added that "follow-up reviews and investigations have been designed to prevent a recurrence".