BNFL told to combat threat of nuclear contamination on Cumbrian beaches

After the Thorp leak, Environment Agency gets tough over problems at waste-storage site near Sellafield

BNFL, which is facing a potential prosecution over a recent nuclear leak at Sellafield, has been told by the Environment Agency to come up with an action plan to prevent 950,000 cubic metres of nuclear waste oozing out on to beaches in Cumbria.

BNFL, which is facing a potential prosecution over a recent nuclear leak at Sellafield, has been told by the Environment Agency to come up with an action plan to prevent 950,000 cubic metres of nuclear waste oozing out on to beaches in Cumbria.

The waste is stored in the low-level waste repository at the village of Drigg, near Sellafield. Although it was transferred from BNFL's ownership to the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) earlier this year, it is managed by British Nuclear Group, a BNFL subsidiary.

In a secret report, prepared by the state-owned nuclear group for the Environment Agency three years ago, BNFL warned that coastal erosion could mean that in 500 years, waste from Drigg could fall from the repository on to the beaches and be washed into the sea.

In this scenario, the risk of contamination would be 100 times the risk target - which is that there would be a one in a million chance of death from radiation for local residents.

Much of the waste in Drigg has a radioactive life running into thousands of years.

The Environment Agency launched a consultation last week on what BNFL should do about the problem, seeking the views of the company, residents and environmental experts.

At the moment, the waste is stored in trenches, covered by soil. Ian Streathfield, the nuclear regulator at the Environment Agency, said that the options put to the BNFL are: stopping further storage of certain nuclear waste at the site; removing some of the waste from Drigg; building a new, thicker cap for the waste trenches; and making BNFL manage the site for twice as long as the 150 years it had proposed. "The solution could involve any or all of these proposals," said Mr Streathfield. "Any option has advantages or disadvantages, in terms of costs and benefit."

Removing some of the waste would be a massive headache for BNFL, as would stopping further disposals at Drigg, which is the largest waste-storage facility in the UK. Much of the long-term waste - which would need to be removed - was dumped at Drigg in the 1980s and is buried below other waste.

Stopping further shipments would mean the NDA changing its low-level waste strategy completely. Drigg has been operating since 1959 and it was planned to continue until 2050, taking up to 500,000 cubic metres more waste. Unless another site could be found near Sellafield, this waste would have to be transported by train across the country.

The consultation on what is to be done at Drigg will continue until January, and a solution will have to be approved by the secretaries of state for health and for environment, food and rural affairs.

A spokesman for BNFL said: "We are aware of the concerns of the Agency, and once the process comes to a decision, we will act upon it."

The problems at Drigg have emerged only weeks after a report on the Thorp fuel reprocessing plant at Sellafield, which found that radioactive liquid had been leaking, undetected, from a pipe until discovered in April, creating a pool of 83,000 litres.

This is being cleaned up and BNFL is being investigated by the Nuclear Industries Inspectorate over the incident. Industry experts believe that the NII may prosecute BNFL for breaches of health and safety over the Thorp leak.

The Government dropped plans to privatise BNFL two years ago but this month will start attempting to sell Westinghouse, the BNFL subsidiary that builds nuclear reactors.

NM Rothschild, the merchant bank, is advising on the sale and will invite bids from interested parties.

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