JULY 1984 - VOLUME 5 - NUMBER 7
Trouble At the World's Nuclear Dustbin
by Jason Adkins
Despite the driest weather in 20 years, few bathers enjoyed the seashore in England's hilly northwestern lake district this summer. "Everyone knows the whole area near the Sellafield nuclear plant is radioactive," explains one nearby resident, a British Rail conductor who won't let his family near the beaches there.
Sellafield, one of only two commercial nuclear fuel reprocessing plants in the world (the other is in France), admittedly discharges "more radioactivity into the sea or into the environment than any other single plant," according to Con AlIday, the chairman of British Nuclear Fuels Limited (BNFL), the government-owned company which operates the facility.
Sellafield and its operator received worldwide attention last November, when abnormally high levels of radioactivity found along the area's sandy beaches forced the Thatcher government to issue warnings against any "unnecessary" use of 15 miles of shoreline. Although the warnings were lifted in early August, nine months after the Sellafield radioactivity release, the question of safety still plagues tourists and townspeople.
British Nuclear Fuels is waging a defensive credibility campaign to convince its critics at home and abroad that its plant is safe. That isn't easy at a site that one group, Greenpeace. has called "the world's nuclear dustbin."
More than 36 nuclear power plants in Britain, West Germany, Italy, Japan, Sweden, and other nations ship their highly radioactive wastes, or "spent" nuclear fuel, to Sellafield's Windscale Works unit for reprocessing-chemical treatment to separate the useless waste from the reusable uranium and plutonium. Currently, though, mostly it's the wastes from older British nuclear plants that are actually reprocessed at the site, since the existing Windscale operation can only handle spent "magnox" fuel (named after the fuel's casing; most of the imported waste is spent "oxide" fuel, cased in steel rods). In addition to reprocessing about 1,500 tons of the magnox fuel annually, the site serves as storage point for some 1,550 tons of oxide waste, which BNFL will not have the capacity to reprocess before 1990 pending the successful completion of a new plant. Also at Sellafield, four 50-megawatt nuclear power stations, whose cooling towers dominate the coastline, generate electricity for the Windscale operations and for Britain's central electric utility.
All this activity naturally means large amounts of waste. Low-level radioactive by-products gush out a 1.5 mile pipeline into the Irish Sea at a rate of one to 2.2 million gallons per day. Government records indicate that over a quarter of a ton of highly radioactive plutonium has been discharged into the Irish Sea since 1952, when Sellafield-the site of an old World War II munitions depot-was commissioned to produce weapons grade plutonium for the British atomic weapons program.
Critics argue that all that plutonium, once thought to remain permanently on the seabed, is actually stirred up by° the tides and washed ashore, where it dries and is blown into the air to be breathed by people or to settle in their home,, as dust (see diagram page 17).
In addition to the routine discharges, accidents are not unfrequent at the site. In 1957, the fuel in a British atomic bomb plant at Windscale caught fire and released from 10,000 to ?0.000 curies of radioactivity into the atmosphere-about 400 times more than was released in the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania. Radiation was blown throughout England and most of Europe, and thousands of gallons of milk had to be dumped for fear of contamination. Studies have estimated that the release caused several hundred cancers, some fatal.
Since 1952, there have been 14 "incidents" at Sellafield involving "abnormal" releases of radioactivity into the environment, and over 300 "minor" accidents. But it is the incident that contaminated miles of beaches last November that is still simmering in Britain.
The timing of the discharge couldn't have been worse for British Nuclear Fuels. On November 1, a Yorkshire Television documentary had reported an incidence of leukemia ten times greater than normal among children living in Seascale, a town one mile south of Sellafield. Several days later, in the dead of night. Greenpeace launched a small ship out to sea, with three divers who attempted to seal off the end of Sellafield's 1.5 mile pipeline. For their action the divers were fined $60,000, but succeeded in galvanizing popular support against the plant's discharges.
Inadvertently, the Greenpeace divers discovered a radioactive "slick" that later washed ashore and contaminated the beaches with hazardous levels of radioactivity. It was this "PR disaster," as BNFL officials refer to the accident, that prompted the government to issue a warning discouraging use of the beaches.
Environmental groups like Greenpeace and its local affiliate, the Barrow Action Group, are concerned that unhealthy levels of radioactivity will permanently harm local residents. The Barrow Action Group office is located near the docks where the nuclear waste, transported by sea from around the world, is transferred to trains for the 50-mile coastal trip north to Sellafield. Nuclear critics worry that all the transporting activity increases the likelihood of a serious accident involving radioactivity releases. (In fact, as this issue of the Monitor went to press, a freighter carrying radioactive uranium bound from France to the Soviet Union had recently sunk off the coast of Belgium, and scientists worried that unless the cargo is retrieved, it could explode.)
Barrow Action Group head Jean Emery argues that British Nuclear Fuels has violated the human rights of local people with the radioactive discharges. "Everything we know about it scares me," she says, "from the presence of radioactive isotopes in fish, to the fact that many birds are no longer breeding in local estuaries, to the high incidence of cancer in the area."
Ms. Emery has been working with local unions, county council representatives, and Labor party members to organize local pressure to close Sellafield, or, at the minimum, to eliminate radioactive discharges. A conference sponsored by a dozen trade unions working around Barrow-in-Furness will explore alternatives to the nuclear industry in mid-September. Since Barrow is the home of the nuclear-class Poseidon and proposed Trident submarine shipyards, and port for much of the world's nuclear waste, unionists there could play an important role in stopping the nuclear activity, both military and commercial.
Political involvement of British trade unions has been effective in the past, according to Greenpeace Director Peter Wilkinson. In 1982 an appeal to the National Union of Seamen to stop handling radioactive wastes destined for ocean dumping was heeded, and there has been no ocean dumping since.
If it weren't for Greenpeace, Ms. Emery speculates, "BNFL would have taken their damn time, or would never have alerted the public about the discharge in November." BNFL spokesperson Jake Kelly confirmed that the company "did not have to report the incident until the slick hit the beach." In an interview, Kelly declared that "the British nuclear industry, unlike the Americans, does not alert the public about an accident until the situation can be properly assessed."
The radioactive slick originated when Windscale workers inadvertently discharged large quantities of radioactive solvents used to flush out storage tanks during maintenance operations. The discharge of 1,500 curies did not exceed permissible levels of 3,000 curies over a three month period. But the company conceded that concentrations of radioactivity or particulate material could have a "significant health risk" if handled for a period of several hours or if ingested.
Plant critics claim that the most severely contaminated flotsam and beaches from the November discharge had produced a radioactivity count that would reach up to the permissible annual exposure in several hours. Normal background radiation measures ten counts per second. By contrast, the contaminated beaches near Sellafield had counts above 1,000 per second for over nine months. (The United Kingdom's permitted levels for public exposure to radioactivity are the highest in the world, some 20 times higher than those in the U.S.)
Although British Nuclear Fuels performed extensive cleaning of 15 miles of contaminated beach and removed thousands of tons of sand, flotsam with considerable levels of radioactivity was found on the seashore 25 miles north of Sellafield. Seven months after the contamination took place, restrictions on the use of area beaches were relaxed so that people could walk there, but not pick up anything. Parents were advised to keep children away.
As part of the public relations campaign to cleanse its public image, BNFL is now conducting tours of the 485 acre site for reporters-which carefully reveal little that is threatening. Behind the unobtrusive chain-link fence and armed guards are lots of flower beds and green grass. Within an inner perimeter, wearing special shoes and coat,. 6.000 of Sellafield's 8,000 employees walk freely among research buildings, nuclear reactor domes and cooling towers, and water and steam pipes. Large canisters of uranium, which emitsan alpha particle that, officials offered, is "only dangerous if breathed in or ingested, pass by on company haulers.
At a recent tour, the chairman of the trade unions, Bill Robinson, "happened by" to emphacize his confidence in plant safety proceedures. Nuclear workers' unions tend to be more pro-nuclear than the seamen's, largely out of concern for their jobs. "We can anything checked or changed that we don't think is safe," Robinson boasted. However, he was unwilling to reveal details about company concessions governing workers' compensation for exposure levels above "permitted" doses of radiation, but only stressed that they were fair.
In its tours and literature, BNFL emphasizes its programs of testing for radiation in the sea, local fish, beaches, air, land animals, and employees. "For all our bad publicity," said one BNFL official, repeating a common industry claim, "Nobody can prove that the nuclear industry has ever killed anybody."
But despite government reports that the company has operated well within the bounds set by international standards, the pressure is on BNFL to clean up its act, and the company recently submitted proposals to build a modern treatment plant designed to reduce levels of radioactive discharges to "as near zero as possible," in chairman Con Allday's words. The U.S., France, and Japan all have newer and "cleaner" facilities than Sellafield. Recent pressure on Sellafield has come from the European Parliament, which passed a non-binding resolution this year urging a policy of "zero discharge" targets for nuclear plants. The U K voted favorably on the resolution at the last minute.
Not that British Nuclear Fuels is happy about having to spend money on safety improvements. The company laments publicly that with the $130 million it will cost to reduce "already safe" levels of radioactive discharges, several hospitals could be built.
Officials are also cavalier about long term radioactive waste problems. Even when reusable fuels are salvaged from the spent fuels, massive amounts of radioactive wastes are created in the process that can be deadly for hundreds of thousands of years. So far, no satisfactory method has been designed for dealing with these wastes -but plenty of unworkable methods have been proposed. BNFL's "solution" is a vitrification plant presently under construction which is supposed to convert the highly-radioactive liquid wastes into glass which is then "easily stored in air cooled warehouses or underground," according to one BNFL official, who went on to admit that this "glass" would have to be stored in isolation for up to a million years.
For the time being, the British government is firmly committed to the nuclear industry, arguing that petroleum and coal reserves cannot provide for Britain's long term energy needs. North Sea oil is expected to run out by the year 2000, and the coal industry is prone to debilitating labor disputes. Already producing 16 percent of electricity in the UK and 40 percent in Scotland, nuclear energy is projected to play an increasingly larger role in the nation's energy future.
Assuming it can improve its public image, the future looks bright for British Nuclear Fuels. "We are in the business of recycling nuclear fuel and there is no shortage of clients," reasoned one BNFL spokesperson. Prospering during periods of an international economic recession and oil glut, BNFL offers testimony to the profitability of the nuclear reprocessing industry, with sales and profits up 95 percent since 1979 to 457.5 million British pounds ($618 million).
Business may be good at Sellafield, but public perception resulting from the releases of radiation and the conditional closing of the beaches last November has devastated the local tourist industry. In May, a local newspaper's headline boldly declared that "a nuclear cloud hangs over holidays." Hotels and restaurant owners are suffering vacancies higher than in any of the 12 previous years.
The local fishing industry has also been caught by the bad publicity and the perception that local fish are dangerously contaminated, despite assurances to the contrary by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries, and Food (MAFF). With a $600,000 annual budget to monitor the marine environment, MAFF has reported that measurable levels of radioactive isotopes in marine animals increase proportionally the closer to Sellafield that they are caught, but claims that they are still safe to eat. Nevertheless fish retailers have been advertising on their windows that their catch is from Scotland and "Not Caught Locally."
To the dismay of BNFL, in early August the Director of Public Prosecutions decided to prosecute the company for last November's radioactivity release, charging that BNFL failed to maintain proper records, and to keep radioactive materials under control and discharges "as low as reasonably achievable." Company executives may be named in the suit.
The controversy has sparked a debate at the national level. In the House of Commons, a small but growing number of ministers want to terminate Sellafield operations. Charles Haughty, former Prime Minister of Ireland, has called for an immediate and total halt to the radioactive discharges into the Irish Sea.
Far from quieting plant critics, in July an independent commission chaired by Sir Douglas Black, former head of the Royal Academy of Sciences, completed a sixmonth study that offered only "qualified reassurance" to area residents that Sellafield poses no unique health hazard to them. Black confirmed the high incidence of local leukemia, and acknowledged that radiation is the only "known" cause of leukemia in children. While the report stopped short of saying that Sellafield was responsible for the cancer, it didn't rule out that possibility, and Black called for more extensive, historical inquiries into local residents' health.
In spite of the uncertainty, British Nuclear Fuels seems undaunted by its past record and its future hurdles-legal and otherwise. With unabashed self-confidence, the company still serves local fish to employees each Friday.
Jason Adkins is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.