Britain's most notorious nuclear installation was plunged into crisis last week, when vital equipment broke down just as it was recovering from an accident that shut it for two years. Sellafield's Thorp reprocessing plant has been closed again, while starting only its second job since the shutdown.
And the Cumbrian complex's crisis is compounded by an excoriating report which shows that its facilities for handling nuclear waste are a shambles and that its safety procedures for preventing accidents – which could kill hundreds of thousands of Britons – are "not fully adequate".
The latest incident, which took place on Monday, could not have happened at a worst time for Sellafield or for the nuclear industry as a whole as it tries to generate the confidence needed to persuade investors to build a new generation of atomic power stations.
Thorp was only just limping back into production after being closed in the summer of 2005 after – as The Independent on Sunday exclusively reported at the time – a highly radioactive liquid was discovered to have been leaking undetected for at least eight months. The firm was fined £500,000 for safety breaches.
So far it has processed only one batch of spent nuclear fuel after going back into production. It was just starting the second when an underwater lift that takes the fuel for reprocessing broke down. Operations had to be stopped, and no one knows when they will restart. Sellafield admits that production was slow even before the incident, because of problems with waste reprocessing facilities.
The stinging report, by the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate, reveals the extent of the mess. After reprocessing, highly dangerous radioactive liquid waste is concentrated through evaporation and stored above ground in 21 giant steel tanks before being "vitrified" – bound into glass for disposal. But the report shows that every stage of this process is in crisis.
Two of the three evaporators have been shut due to safety problems, and there are continuing "difficulties" with vitrification. But the most alarming issue is the failure of equipment needed to cool the waste, which could, at worst, lead to an explosion, scattering radioactivity across much of the country. Studies suggest that for every tank that exploded 210,000 people would die from cancer.
The report also reveals "poor housekeeping standards" in the waste stores, that vital safety inspections are "not fully effective", and it condemns "lack of focus" on "emergency arrangements and fire safety".
Sellafield accepts the report's findings, but says it has "strengthened management arrangements" and made "improvements" to the plant. This fails to impress the independent nuclear expert John Large, who said: "The Government wants to build new nuclear power stations, but the backend of the process, which deals with their waste, is a shambles."
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