Storage of nuclear waste 'unsatisfactory'

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The Independent Online
Government inspectors have strongly criticised some of British Nuclear Fuels' methods for storing and disposing of nuclear waste.

A report from the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate and Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Pollution found ''a number of storage facilities to be less than satisfactory'' at the state-owned company's Sellafield nuclear reprocessing site in Cumbria.

The report, published yesterday, followed an in-depth audit carried out by inspectors over a three-month period at the end of 1994. They visited Sellafield and British Nuclear Fuels Ltd (BNFL)'s Drigg low-level nuclear waste disposal site seven miles away.

At both sites the inspectors found a need for management improvements for some wastes. They also criticised the record-keeping for ''historic'' intermediate level wastes and plutonium contaminated materials. This is the radioactive left-overs from the earlier years of Britain's civil and military nuclear effort, more than a quarter century old.

"'More effort should be expended to generate accurate records of the accumulated wastes and to produce a site-wide proactive record keeping system,'' says the report.

The most damaging part of the report consists of several photographs with captions showing drums of plutonium-contaminated waste stacked too high or in an unstable manner, or so exposed to the elements that they were rusting.

One building is over-filled to the point where it is difficult to check the condition of the waste, says a caption.

The report makes 15 recommendations for improvements but it concludes that none of the waste posed an immediate risk to workers or the public.

In many cases - and especially for the recently produced wastes - standards of storage and disposal were very high. And BNFL was trying to hard to improve the handling of the older wastes held at the Sellafield complex for decades.

The auditors point out that it will be at least 45 years before some of the intermediate-level wastes are finally disposed of, long-term, in a permanent underground repository which Britain's nuclear industry is planning. Hence the need to look after it carefully and keep good records while it remains on the surface.

BNFL said some of the recommendations had already been implemented. ''We are world leaders in the safe handling of nuclear waste, which is why our US subsidiary is getting some important contracts,'' said a spokeswoman.

There was speculation in the nuclear industry that yesterday's critical report explained why a pounds 200,000 press advertising campaign planned for this week had been withdrawn at the last minute. The advertising by Saatchi & Saatchi would have set out the merits of underground long term disposal of intermediate level waste.

But a spokesman for Nirex, which is planning the underground store, yesterday denied there was any connection.