Councils want curbs on work at Sellafield

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The Independent Online
MORE THAN 100 councils in England and Wales are so worried about the chances of a devastating nuclear accident at the Sellafield reprocessing plant that they aim to mount a legal challenge to the government's Nuclear Installations Inspectorate (NII), which licences the site.

The 117-strong UK Nuclear Free Local Authorities group joined calls by Gordon Thompson, an American nuclear scientist, for a halt to reprocessing of reactor waste at the British Nuclear Fuels installation. Only that, said Dr Thompson, would substantially reduce the risk of an accident in the 1,000 cubic metres of highly radioactive waste stored in 21 water- cooled tanks at the site.

If an earthquake, operator accident, or terrorist attack occurred the waste could be released, with effects up to 100 times worse than the 1986 Chernobyl reactor explosion. The Irish Sea would be polluted with plutonium, while an explosion could release radioactive caesium that would contaminate anything it landed on.

"The nuclear industry and the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate doesn't understand the risks faced by its own industry, but the Chernobyl accident is the precedent," said Dr Thompson.

Local authorities which could be affected by an accident at Sellafield want the NII to publicise the data it uses to decide the risks posed by installations.They are considering court action to force such openness.

But a spokesman for the NII, a subdivision of the Health and Safety Executive, said nuclear inspectors' hands were bound by the 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act, which prohibits inspectors from releasing any information about sites they examine without the express permission of the sites' owners.

"It doesn't sound as though there's any abuse of the law by the NII," said a spokesman. "It sounds instead like the councils are calling for entirely new laws, such as a Freedom of Information Act."

Both Dr Thompson and Martin Hemingway, a Leeds councillor who is chair of UK Nuclear Free Local Authorities, attacked the culture of secrecy which pervades the present civil nuclear regime in Britain.

Mr Hemingway said: "NII is the safety regulator and must act in the public interest, not BNFL's, to maintain public confidence. Last week the NII said it was forced to suppress vital safety information about Dounreay reprocessing plant to avoid jeopardising commercial prospects there. The NII could only release its damning report on Dounreay safety because the plant now has no commercial prospects. We fear a similar story of `tail wags dog' at Sellafield.

"BNFL can stamp `commercial in confidence' on documents, or assert proprietorial rights to basic safety information to prevent NII from releasing it for public scrutiny. We believe that this weakens regulation and prevents public accountability. The Government must review the relationship between regulator and operator."

Dr Thompson, director of the Massachusetts-based Institute for Resource and Security Studies, said the best option would be to stop reprocessing now, and address the backlog of waste that now has to be cooled to stop it overheating.

BNFL has said that the present backlog will not be dealt with until at least 2015. But Dr Thompson said that by stopping reprocessing now, the existing waste could be vitrified by 2007.