Nuclear fuel flask left in perilous spot for 12 hours

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The Independent Online

Transport Correspondent

A flask carrying spent nuclear fuel being loaded on to a train was left in a perilous positionperched on a lorry for 12 hours after a crane failed, while railway managers argued about who was responsible for dealing with the problem.

The response to the incident on the afternoon of 2 March shows major gaps in safety procedures following the break-up of the railways and an absence of contingency plans for such emergencies.

The incident, detailed in a report leaked to Glenda Jackson, Labour transport co-ordinator, involved a flask containing spent nuclear fuel from the Sizewell reactor being loaded at Leiston in Suffolk for transportation by train to Sellafield in Cumbria.

As the crane operator was lifting the flask off the lorry, the 30-year- old crane failed when the flask was about a foot above the transporter and it fell back down "partially on the lorry deck and partially on supporting lugs".

After hours of delays caused by the failure of anyone to take control of the situation and with Railtrack disclaiming responsibility for the incident since the flask was not actually on the rails, the flask was eventually loaded onto a train by another crane.

The incident caused such concern that all nuclear traffic was stopped on the railways for a week following the incident while the cranes used to load and unload the flasks on to the trains were checked for faults.

The failure was caused by a fuse blowing on the crane which meant it had insufficient power to hold the flask, which carries spent fuel that would emit sufficient radiation to kill if the flask broke.

The leaked report, by Mainline Freight which operates the crane and is one of three BR freight companies being put up for privatisation, is highly critical of the procedures and says: "The inquiry [by four senior railway managers] highlighted many areas where the response from management fell short of what would be expected". The manager on duty at Mainline's operations centre in Nottingham, Mr C Barlow, failed to initiate an emergency plan, apparently because procedures had not been changed following the reorganisation of the railways in April 1994 in preparation for privatisation.

No supervisor was called to the incident because, "due to retirement and sickness in the area," available staff "were not deemed competent to cover the incident". Even when the seriousness of the situation was recognised, "action on the part of [rail managers]was not with the urgency that should be associated with an incident".

While procedures stress that one manager should be appointed as "incident officer" to take control of the situation, the report says "it is to who had assumed the role of Railway Incident Officer".

Ms Jackson said last night: "This report exposes how the Government's rail privatisation has a direct influence in hampering the response to a serious incident involving nuclear cargoes." She called for an immediate inquiry into BR's safety procedures.

The operators of the nuclear trains, Transrail Freight Ltd, stressed last night the flasks are designed to withstand very heavy blows and even if the flask had been dropped on the ground it would not have split open.