British Nuclear Fuels was fined the maximum pounds 20,000 after pleading guilty at Whitehaven Magistrates in Cumbria to breaching nuclear regulations. The court was told that for more than six years the company failed to act on a series of recommendations to carry out "urgent and immediate" repairs on the 100-metre long bridge carrying the main low-level radioactive discharge from the plant over the Barrow-to-Carlisle railway line and out to the Irish Sea. There had been the risk that a collapse of the bridge could have caused the pipe to fracture with a leak of radioactive material.
Imposing the heaviest fine available to a magistrate for a breach of the Radioactive Substances Act, the magistrates' chairman Frank Hornsby said the public had a right to expect that BNFL should carry out fully its responsibilities. "The total disregard of reports prepared between 1990 and 1995 recommending urgent remedial action is of grave concern," he added.
Steven Zdolyny, counsel for the Environment Agency which brought the prosecution, said problems with the bridge, where concrete had cracked and metal corroded, had been highlighted in four independent reports and two surveys by the company. One report warned of the eventual "partial or total collapse" of the 50-year-old bridge, which had been designed to last only 25 years.
"There is no evidence any substantive work was carried out on the structure," he said. If the bridge had failed, there could have been a leak of radioactive waste, he added.
The Environment Agency accepted the environmental results would have been small because of the plant's radiation-leak detection system, which would have shut down the discharges.
Any dose received by the public would depend on the time an individual had been in the vicinity and the volume released. "But it is important to say this whole area is available to the public," said Mr Zdolyny.
"While there were no direct environmental consequences, there was a potential for such consequences." This had not happened, "not by any action taken by BNFL, but more by luck than anything else".
BNFL legal director Alvin Shuttleworth said there had been a failure by a manager responsible for the pipeline, who had been dismissed. However, the company did not accept that a collapse of the bridge would have broken the pipeline.