Deadly cargo: Nuclear waste travelling through London poses unacceptable risks

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Around Mare Street, E8, most people know about the trains. Shop assistants smile cynically when you mention the all too familiar flasks with their pale cladding. On Thursday afternoons they thunder across the bridge spanning the busy, bus-clogged road.

Further down the tracks, West Indian mechanics in a garage beneath a railway arch have been watching the trains for years, aware that they carry spent fuel from the reactors at Sizewell and Bradwell nuclear power stations. The radiation these men receive has not been computed, though emissions can travel up to 660 yards from the flask. The same applies to the travellers' encampment squeezed between the line and Homerton High Street, the squatters who inhabit the disintegrating prefabs next door and the families on the surrounding estates.

On Atlantic Road, SW9, it's a different story. Few shoppers in the throbbing Brixton street market realise that a train carrying irradiated waste from Germany and Switzerland trundles past regularly on the bridge overhead, en route to the Sellafield reprocessing plant in Cumbria. No authority has seen fit to inform them.

Several minutes later, the same train and its toxic cargo will hurtle through Olympia, past the exhibition centre, tower blocks and elegant white houses of Kensington. When Thorp (the thermal oxide reprocessing plant recently added to the Sellafield complex) finally overcomes its teething troubles and is handed its operating licence by the Nuclear Installations Inspect-orate, there will be more and more trains as Nuclear Electric touts the world for clients.

What will be the consequences of this escalating trade in radioactive waste for a metropolis already hosting 100 movements a year? In 1983 the National Radiological Protection Board made a study of radiation exposure from the transport of nuclear fuel by road and rail from Magnox power stations.

They made several erroneous assumptions, the first being that no one lived closer than 50 metres to the railway line. But what about the tenants near Caledonian Road, whose bedroom windows are within a few yards of the elevated track? Or the children on Hampstead Heath frolicking in adventure playgrounds that abut the line? Or the residents of Herne Hill whose cabbage patches and rose gardens meet the end of the station platform? Even commuters racing past the moving flasks receive measurable doses of radiation.

The study also assumed that no one lived closer than 100 metres to a stationary flask. But at the Willesden Junction marshalling yard, houses lie a few metres from the sidings where flasks can wait for eight hours to link up with trains from Dungeness and Sizewell to travel north to Sellafield. The people in these houses have been receiving what nuclear regulators call 'safe' levels of radiation week in and week out for years. Their opinions are never sought, the state of their health never monitored. Experts predict that risk factors will rise dramatically with the increase in Thorp trains. As for transport workers, they can receive the equivalent dosage of up to 30 chest X-rays a year from handling the flasks.

There has been no proper investigation of radiation doses and the number of cancers around places like Willesden and Clapham (Britain's busiest station, according to the proud and rather chilling placard.) Emissions decrease rapidly as one moves further from the fuel packages, but how comforting can this be when increasing exposure equals increasing health risk? We do not know enough about the inherent dangers, and the technical information necessary to evaluate them is not made available by British Nuclear Fuels Limited. One thing, however, is certain: there is no such thing as a 'safe' dose of radiation.

London has a population density of 10,000 per square kilometre. What would be the effects on us of a flask accident? BNFL recognizes only two types, the 'credible' and the 'incredible'. Since the latter, they affirm, cannot exist, they have tested only for the former. According to Dr John Large, a nuclear scientist who worked as a consultant at Sellafield, these safety tests are ludicrously inadequate. The collision test, in particular, is generally agreed to be a farce.

BNFL claims that the flasks will withstand a temperature of 800C for 30 minutes. Yet in a 1984 tunnel accident (the worst possible sort) a fire lasted for three days and burned at 1,000C. But the best piece of black humour is that the test itself is derived from the British Standard fire resistance test on ordinary safes, which takes as its benchmark the internal temperature at which banknotes ignite]

Dr Large, who is doing a study for Greenpeace, does not regard himself as an environmentalist, but he does believe that safety standards set by the nuclear industry are not prescriptive of real accident conditions. They do satisfy conventions set by the International Atomic Energy Authority, but those, too, have little scientific basis. For instance, after an extended period in a fire, a flask will rupture because its metal clamp design ensures it won't open in a collision. Redesigning the flasks would cost BNFL, forever moaning about regulations, a bomb.

Back in the world of vulnerable human tissues, Stanley Knapp, who lives so near the rail tracks at Penge that he can almost reach out and touch the continental flasks travelling weekly past his signalman's house, woke one day at 3am to see young vandals placing large rocks along the tracks and live conductor rail. Last year, says Stanley (known to his friends as 'glowing' Stan) a sleeper was laid across the line at Penge tunnel.

Then there was the incendiary device near Orpington eight months ago, and the IRA bomb at Sevenoaks, planted last December and discovered in March. A train driver convicted of driving above the alcohol limit, and demolishing Maidstone East station in the process, admitted to having driven nuclear trains.

These are not alarmist fantasies. Any of the above could have had horrendous consequences, especially since the trains also carry petrochemicals and other hazardous substances. Rail privatisation will compound the risks. Yet appropriate plans for evacuation in London do not exist. Local councils, who deal with peacetime disasters, have no policy on nuclear transport and receive no advance notice of the movement of radioactive materials. British Rail is obliged to tell only the local chief constable when a train is about to run, and the nuclear rail freight timetable is not available to the public.

BNFL takes no responsibility for emergency procedures other than to send an advice officer, who may not arrive until hours after the event - which is what happened at a recent flask exercise in Cumbria. The emergency planner is a local councillor who, ironically, must rely upon BNFL's estimates of what constitutes the worst possible disaster.

There are no rehearsals for and no understanding of evacuation procedures other than to clear a 50 yard area around the crash. Fire and civil defence personnel are not trained to deal with nuclear accidents. They are not taught the different qualities of nuclear fuels and do not know their radiation content. How could they decide whether to evacuate? Bromley Council helpfully suggests that the poor sods trying to cope with what could amount to three Hiroshimas' worth of nuclear blow-out proceed to the local hospital and ask the resident radiographer for advice. Or they could always call the Capital Radio Helpline.

The Political Ecology Research Group reports that a 10 per cent leak would render a strip of land widening out from the site of the accident uninhabitable for 125 years. But who really knows? Radioactive dust would be ubiquitous, blowing up to 50 kilometres from the crash, depending on the weather, and be harder to clean up than asbestos. The local population would suffer radiation sickness and, eventually, increased cancers.

Under the circumstances, should we allow ourselves to be mollified by the assurances of those whose commercial interests have everything to gain from our quiescence? BNFL smugly reels off its safety record, but, in fact, its analysis of accident probability is crude and based on limited information. There is too much conflicting data and too much secrecy.

The industry's whole accident philosophy is warped. Its Olympian dismissal of the nightmare scenario is at best cavalier, at worst criminally negligent. It is the nature of accidents to be 'incredible', and besides, anything that endangers millions of people, however remotely, is simply not acceptable.

Meanwhile it's 3 May, 8pm, and two Magnox flasks are sitting in the Hither Green sidings. It's a Thursday afternoon in June and the Bradwell train leaves Hackney Central for the lush back gardens of Canonbury. It's 11.24am, 18 August, and Mr Knapp has just noted another continental flask. This one was accompanied by a chemical wagon bearing a 'poison symbol.

And me, I'm stalled on the North London line near Dalston Kingsland. Outside my dirty window white-painted graffiti exhorts me to 'Fight the Power'.

A message with a new and frightening significance.

Mary Flanagan's collection of short stories, 'The Blue Woman, is published by Bloomsbury.

(Photograph omitted)