The pipe failure at the Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant (Thorp) – part of the Sellafield complex in the UK’s Cumbria – that allowed a mixture of uranium and plutonium dissolved in nitric acid to leak into a stainless steel containment structure has been classified as category III on the International Nuclear Event Scale (INES).

The leak, defined as a ‘serious incident’ on INES, was discovered on 20 April during inspection of the plant’s Feed Clarification Cell. The cell, which holds dissolver solution while tests are carried out, is specifically designed to withstand such failures.

Managing director of British Nuclear Group, Sellafield, Barry Snelson said: “Let me reassure people that the plant is in a safe and stable state. I have asked for the front end of the plant’s reprocessing operations, including shearing, to be closed down. The plant is in a safe, quiescent state.”

Details of the failure and its causes are currently being investigated, but approximately 83m3 of liquor has been observed on the floor of the cell and engineers are putting plans together to recover the liquor and repair the pipe.

A board of inquiry has being convened and an investigation into the leak is expected to report within the next few weeks.

Nuclear opposition groups have attempted to capitalise on the development by arguing that a nuclear build programme plan widely speculated as part of the newly re-elected government’s agenda should be abandoned. Furthermore, the very future of reprocessing in the UK has now been called into question with some speculating that it would make economic sense to keep the facility closed rather than restart it and continue running it through to its due closure date in 2012.

Sir Anthony Cleaver, chairman of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) which owns the Sellafield site, has said: “The NDA has not formed a position on the future of Thorp. The arguments surrounding Thorp have been well aired over recent years but we will need a comprehensive understanding of last month’s incident and time to consider all the implications before being able to take a formal view on its future. Any ultimate decision on Thorp will be for the government.”

Meanwhile, the project services arm of the British Nuclear Group has just been awarded a Gold Award by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents in its Occupational Health and Safety Awards 2005.

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