Radioactive waste site 'breaking safety laws'

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The Independent Online
ACTIVISTS from Greenpeace, the environmental group, have secretly entered Britain's largest radioactive dump site, Drigg, near Sellafield in Cumbria, and found what they claim to be breaches of safety laws.

The group entered the site under cover of darkness in July without being challenged. They allege that intermediate-level waste - which is more radioactive than that permitted for disposal at Drigg - and untreated flammable items were being dumped there.

They also claim that waste was being tipped into trenches which were not covered by soil as required by law. Greenpeace warned that 'despite the obvious failing of current safety regulations', the Government might soon permit radioactive waste to be dumped at local authority landfill sites scattered around the country. The Department of the Environment is conducting a review of nuclear waste disposal policy. In a discussion document issued for public comment, the department raises the possibility of allowing more radioactive waste to go to local landfill sites rather than to the national facility at Drigg.

Bridget Woodman, Greenpeace's nuclear campaigner, said: 'The Government proposals will only serve to spread our nuclear waste all over the country. Bringing in laxer laws will put even more people at risk.'

Drigg is permitted to take only low-level radioactive waste, but the Government is considering altering the definition of 'intermediate-level waste' so that some of it, with comparatively short-lived radioactivity, could be dumped at Drigg.

If the Government decided to change policy in this way, only long-lived intermediate wastes - essentially those contaminated with plutonium in the course of reprocessing operations at Sellafield - would have to be buried deep undergound. The nuclear industry is believed to favour this option, since it would make it much cheaper to dispose of intermediate- level wastes produced at nuclear power stations as none of these are contaminated with plutonium.

The allegations of safety breaches at Drigg were dismissed by HM Inspectorate of Pollution which is responsible for authorising disposals there. A spokesman said: 'There is nothing we know of in the Greenpeace report which requires action by us in terms of emissions or discharges to the environment. We inspect the place regularly, and we are satisfied nothing has gone there that should not have done so.' According to British Nuclear Fuels, which owns and operates the site, Drigg's 300- acre fenced site is regularly patrolled by the UK Atomic Energy Authority constabulary. No one could walk in, but the fence could be scaled. The radiation risk to anyone entering the site was minimal.

A spokeswoman for the company said: 'The occupational radiation dose to those working at Drigg is less than a half the average UK dose from natural background sources.'

Standards of safety and general 'good housekeeping' at Drigg were savagely criticised by an extraordinarily outspoken report from the House of Commons Select Committee on the Environment in 1986.

Since that report, standards at the site have been improved but 'tumble tipping' into open trenches continued. The last such trench will be full and capped at the end of this year. Thereafter, all dumping will be sealed in compacted containers in concrete lined vaults.