Shocking state of world’s riskiest nuclear waste site
21 January 2015
URGENT clean-up of two of the world’s most dangerous radioactive waste stores will be delayed by at least five years, despite growing safety fears.
The waste is stored at the UK’s Sellafield nuclear reprocessing site, which holds radioactive waste dating back to the dawn of the nuclear age. An accident at the derelict site could release radioactive materials into the air over the UK and beyond.
Last week, the UK government sacked the private consortium running the £80-billion-programme to clean up Sellafield, and gave the job back to its own agency, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA). The clean-up operation, scheduled to end by 2120, costs the government £1.9 billion a year.
The private consortium, Nuclear Management Partners, was meant to “bring in world-class expertise” and allow the government to “get to grips with the legacy after decades of inaction”, according to a 2008 statement by Mike O’Brien, energy minister at the time. But six years on, the privatisation experiment has been abandoned.
The surprise renationalisation comes after delays at two of the four waste stores prioritised for clean-up. The four ponds and silos contain hundreds of tonnes of highly radioactive material from more than 60 years of operations. The decaying structures are cracking, leaking waste into the soil, and are at risk of explosions from gases created by corrosion.
In an NDA business plan published last April, the emptying of the 100-metre Pile fuel storage pond, which holds used fuel and waste from the manufacture of the first UK nuclear bombs in the 1950s and 60s, was planned to be completed by 2025. But a timeline in a new draft plan circulated for consultation in December shows the job won’t be done until 2030. Likewise, the £750-million task of emptying the 21-metre-high Pile fuel cladding silo, which has been full since 1964, is now scheduled for completion in 2029, not 2024.
Confirming the change, an NDA spokesman told New Scientist: “Given the unique technical challenges and complexities of these plants, which were built with no thought to how they would be decommissioned… there will continue to be programme uncertainties.”
Sellafield was built on Cumbria’s coast in north-west England in the late 1940s to manufacture plutonium for the UK atomic bomb. The site also housed the world’s first commercial nuclear power station, and became a centre for storing highly radioactive waste from reactors.