Sellafield denies BBC’s reports of poor safety

13 September 2016

A recent BBC documentary about the UK’s Sellafield nuclear facility, which criticised safety at the site has prompted denials from both the UK’s Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (site owner) and Sellafield Ltd (site operator). They said in a joint statement on 6 August that the Panorama programme painted a negative picture of safety that “we do not recognise”.

The documentary alleged that there were a number of “potentially lethal” safety flaws at the site including radioactive chemicals stored in plastic bottles that were only intended for short-term storage. The documentary said there were more than 2,000 bottles containing toxic materials still on site. In a statement, Sellafield Ltd said these samples are "kept securely" and that "to imply that such material is inappropriately managed is simply not true".

A former senior manager at the site, speaking anonymously, said his biggest fear was that one of the nuclear waste silos would catch fire. He said: “If there is a fire there it could generate a plume of radiological waste that will go across western Europe.” The NDA and Sellafield Ltd said in their statement: “Sellafield is safe, there is no question about that. Maintaining safety is the priority at Sellafield. Employees work around the clock every day to ensure that the site is safe today, tomorrow and in the future.”

They said it was disappointing that despite giving the BBC access to Sellafield and spending a significant amount of time explaining complex issues, the programme reported negatively. The statement said: “Sellafield Ltd rightly operates in one of the most regulated industries in the world and current safety performance is excellent and improving and the workers are making great progress in cleaning up Europe’s most complex nuclear site on behalf of the UK taxpayer.”

The NDA is responsible for the UK’s civil public sector nuclear estate, encompassing 17 nuclear sites, their liabilities and assets. This includes Sellafield, which it says is its “largest, most complex site”. Sellafield Ltd is a wholly owned subsidiary of the NDA and responsible for operations and deliverables at the site on behalf of the NDA.

"With a high-level whistleblower, hundreds of leaked documents and exclusive access to former senior managers, reporter Richard Bilton uncovers the truth about Sellafield," the BBC said in its promotion of the programme. "He finds an ageing and run-down plant, where nuclear waste is stored in dangerous conditions and insiders fear a serious accident."

The programme alleged that areas of the Sellafield site regularly had insufficient staff on duty to meet minimum safety levels. However, Rex Strong, head of nuclear safety at Sellafield, said, "You make alternative arrangements, so the things that have to be done get done. Facilities are shut down if we're not able to operate them in the way that we want to."

In a separate statement, the UK's Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) said, "A considerable amount of work is still required to clean up out of date facilities at Sellafield and decommission their older plants. But this does not mean they pose an immediate safety risk to workers or the public." ONR said it has seen "significant progress" at Sellafield in recent years, adding, "If we considered any plant to be unsafe we would shut it down or demand action to reduce that risk and return it to safety."

Nuclear Industry Association CEO Tom Greatrex said, "The nuclear sector's number one priority is safety and security, of both its employees and the communities in which they are based. The UK has a unique decommissioning mission and rightly its priority, managed effectively by the NDA, is to deal with the highest hazards first. There has been real progress on reduction of hazard in the last three years, a point Richard Bilton completely ignored."

The Sellafield site is the largest nuclear site in Europe, and with over 1000 nuclear facilities on site ranks as one of the most complex in the world. Today the site is home to a wide range of operations including the decommissioning of redundant buildings associated with its early defence work dating back to the 1940s, used fuel management including reprocessing, and the safe management and storage of nuclear waste. During the clean-up process, a number of unique new technologies have been developed in response to the difficult tasks required.

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