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Andrew Rosthorn: In the shadow of the Dirty Thirty, a worried community seeks action

Work to clean up Sellafield's legacy will last centuries

The iron grey Irish Sea rolled in timelessly yesterday on the beach that was doomed to its strange fate by the Attlee government's secret 1947 decision to manufacture plutonium near a remote Furness Railway halt on the Cumberland coast.

News, however, of losing its billion-pound Mox nuclear fuel reprocessing plant as a result of a Japanese earthquake and tsunami is seen as less shocking than being the scene of the world's first accidental nuclear fire in 1957. But the work of the vast chemical and nuclear engineering works created by Mr Attlee's government must go on. The Sellafield Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, which may now have to sack some of the 600 workers at the Mox plant, must still deal with the building known as B30, or "Dirty Thirty", the legacy ponds and silos, the sludge packaging plant, the engineered drum stores, the encapsulated product stores and the vitrified high-level waste product stores. The work will, in fact, go on for centuries.

Pippa George, 64, a local archaeologist who lives near the railway line at Eskmeals, said: "Perhaps only archaeologists will appreciate the length of the timescales that we talk about in Sellafield. There are substances in there that will still be dangerous in a quarter of a million years. The building known as Dirty Thirty holds two ponds as big as swimming pools filled with waste materials from the days of the old Magnox power stations.

"It's so radioactive that you can't spend more than two minutes near it. They now say they are going to rebuild it to withstand earthquakes. They need to start work now."

She added: "We live by a beautiful sea in a quiet part of the country at the edge of the Lake District. The tourist people have developed a brand for us. They call us the Lake District Coast. But bad news from Sellafield or from any nuclear plant anywhere in the world, sets us back, by association. It would certainly help if Sellafield appeared to be getting their act together."

However, a retired BNFL chemist still living in the area said: "The Japanese Mox problem is not a disposal problem. The 13 tonnes of Japanese plutonium oxide now held at Sellafield is an extremely valuable source of energy. One tonne of plutonium, when recycled at Sellafield, can create more energy than two million tonnes of coal. The recent panic in both Germany and Japan, about an accident that's not killed a single person, is distorting the judgement of politicians."

Eddie Martin, leader of Cumbria County Council, wanted action by the Government to protect human and financial investment and process the 112 tonnes of separated plutonium held at Sellafield.

"The most effective way of doing this is for the Government to immediately confirm it will commission and build a new Sellafield Mox plant as soon as possible, not least because other countries, such as Russia, are building plants and the commercial opportunities may well bypass us if we are not quick off the mark," he said.