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Sellafield nuclear waste still a clear and present danger

The situation at Sellafield nuclear plant in Cumbria is dire and poses significant risks to people and the environment. Historic neglect, poor planning and a failure to minimize hazards – that’s the history of decommissioning the site of Britain’s first nuclear accident in 1957 when the plant was known as Windscale.

For 50 years, whoever has been in charge (and that has changed frequently), has failed to develop any plan for safe decommissioning and long-term waste storage. The whole sorry (and dangerous) saga is detailed in a new report from the National Audit Office (NAO).

The timetable is slipping further and further, and the reality is that it is a job that simply can’t be done within the current framework of government negligence and lying.

The NAO says the operators still have no plan for storing waste and have no idea how much it will cost to maintain it safely for hundreds of years until it ceases to be a danger.

The current budget for decommissioning is put at £67bn. But over the last ten years, projected costs have increased almost £1bn every year, so the figure is meaningless.

There is enough waste to fill 27 Olympic-sized swimming pools on the site and some of it is being stored in buildings and containers in a poor state of repair.

There are 240 nuclear buildings, and so far only 55 have been decommissioned. Out of 13 contracts, 12 have been of poor quality and not value for money, the NAO found. Dr Ruth Balogh, of West Cumbria and North Lakes Friends of the Earth, commented:

The UK's failure to deal with highly hazardous nuclear waste at Sellafield is a national scandal that poses a significant risk to local people and the environment. The government has completely ignored the urgent need for interim measures to deal with this radioactive waste. We shouldn't build any new nuclear reactors if we can't deal with the radioactive mess that's already been created.

But the government is not listening. They have just signed a deal with Hitachi to build nuclear reactors at Wylfa in Anglesey and Oldbury in Gloucestershire. Hitachi bought out the German-owned Horizon consortium, which withdrew from the project earlier this year.

In the longer term, Hitachi says it wants to build six reactors on existing nuclear sites where power stations are coming to the end of their life.

Their “boiling water” system is new to the UK and risk assessments would normally take years. However, the government may find ways to cut the assessment period, and with the new planning regulations, people living round the sites will not be able to delay projects with legal challenges.

Talking up the deal, claiming billions in investment and thousands of jobs, David Cameron was entirely silent on where the waste will go when these new reactors run down after 60 years. They don’t even know where they are going to put the waste from those currently reaching the end of their lives and almost ready for decommissioning.

Efforts to bribe local authorities to agree to become waste storage locations, initiated by New Labour, have failed. Only Copeland, in west Cumbria has agreed. It is the district round Sellafield and is one of the UK’s poorest areas, partly as a result of the devastation caused by playing host to the UK’s biggest nuclear hazard. Some 70% of the current waste is already in temporary storage at Sellafield.

Energy and climate change secretary Edward Davey claims that Hitachi bring with them “decades of expertise, and are responsible for building some of the most advanced nuclear reactors on time and on budget”. Yes, that includes their participation in building the reactors at Fukushima!

The government boasts that none of the new nuclear power stations will get any public subsidy – but fails to mention the cost of storing the waste. It is the ultimate in short-termism, in profit-driven madness and abject failure of governments to put people and the environment ahead of the big energy corporations when they plan our energy future.

Penny Cole
Environment editor
8 November 2012

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