The unacceptable state of Sellafield’s Highly Active Liquid nuclear waste tanks

 Unacceptable levels of high level liquid waste
a terrorist attack on the Sellafield Highly Active Liquid tanks could require the evacuation of an area between Glasgow and Liverpool, and cause around 2 million fatalities
highly radioactive liquid stored in tanks contained around 2,400
kilograms (kg) of Caesium-137 compared with the 30 kg released during the Chernobyl accident
Dilapidated nuclear waste storage ponds
Dilapidated nuclear waste storage ponds (B29 and B30) abandoned 40 years ago containing
hundreds of tonnes of fuel rods pose an immediate danger to public safety

nuClear News Jan 15  “…….
2014 began with the publication of a new report (1) from the House of Commons Public
Accounts Committee (PAC) which said progress at Sellafield has been poor, with missed targets,
escalating costs, slipping deadlines and weak leadership. The MPs made a series of
recommendations focusing on the role of Nuclear Management Partners (NMP) – the
consortium of California-based URS, France’s Areva and British engineer Amec which is
overseeing the clean-up of Sellafield. The report concluded that the consortium was to blame for
many of the escalating costs and said MPs could not understand why the NDA extended the
consortium’s contract in October 2013. (2) The bill for cleaning up Sellafield had risen to more
than £70bn, according to the report.
A critical 292-page report by the accountancy firm KPMG in 2013 showed that nine of the 11
biggest projects on the site, including the construction of a storage facility for radioactive
sludge, were a combined £2bn over-budget. Seven projects were also behind schedule. (3)
Whilst the PAC highlighted poor performance in clean-up and decommissioning work,
Cumbrians Opposed to a Radioactive Environment (CORE) also sought to highlight how, over
the last decade, commercial reprocessing operational targets have been missed and the record
has been getting worse since the NDA took ownership of Sellafield in 2005. (4)
THORP to close in 2018
A consultation launched in March 2014 on the management of overseas spent fuel, confirmed
that the NDA wants to close the THORP reprocessing plant in 2018. The NDA says operating the
plant beyond 2018 would require the procurement of replacement highly active liquid storage
tanks at a cost of around £500m. It expects to be able to reprocess the great majority of the
remaining 300 tonnes of overseas origin spent fuel as originally intended by that time. However,
a residual 30 tonnes of this fuel (out of the original 5000 tonnes overseas order book) is made
up of small amounts of prototype fuels, experimental fuels, MOX fuels and some materials
leftover from research programmes, which would be challenging to deal with, through
reprocessing, before the planned closure of THORP in 2018. So the proposal is to store and later
“dispose” of this residual 30 tonnes in the UK. Instead the NDA will enact “virtual reprocessing”,
and return a radiologically equivalent amount of waste to the customer as if the fuel has been
reprocessed. (5)
The Government failed to explain why, if it can sanction “virtual reprocessing” for 30 tonnes of
residual spent so that THORP can shut in 2018, why can’t the same be done now for the
remaining 300 tonnes of overseas fuel and any remaining AGR spent fuel which is still slated for
reprocessing so that THORP can shut now. (See
Figures released by Sellafield Ltd in May showed that both reprocessing plants again failed to
meet their respective annual targets. The Company, however, maintains that the currently
scheduled ‘end of reprocessing’ dates – ‘around 2020’ for Magnox and 2018 for THORP- will be
met. (6)
The Magnox reprocessing plant missed its annual target of 664 tonnes for 2013/14 by 194
tonnes. The failure was blamed on an extended outage in summer 2013 and a ‘blockage’
accident which forced the plant to close from 23rd February to 16th April 2014. (7). Setting a
target of 529 tonnes for the current financial year 2014/15, Sellafield Ltd calculated that such
an annual rate would see the reprocessing of the remaining 2970 tonnes of magnox fuel
completed on schedule by 2020.
THORP completed only 346 tonnes out of an annual target of 423 tonnes for 2013/14. The
target for this current financial year (2014/15) has been set at 439 tonnes. A similar level has
already been set for each year up to the plant’s scheduled closure in late 2018. For a plant
designed to reprocess 1200 tonnes per year, this low projected annual throughput reflects the
catalogue of technical problems and accidents that have dogged THORP since it started
operating in 1994.
Unacceptable levels of high level liquid waste
In March 2013 Friends of the Earth published a report entitled “Towards a Safer Cumbria – How
government, regulators and the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority have neglected nuclear waste
). Since then Friends of the
Earth North Lakes and West Cumbria has been pressing the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR)
to use its regulatory powers to end reprocessing as quickly as possible.
Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001 a review was undertaken of the impact of similar
attacks on vulnerable UK facilities. It found that a terrorist attack on the Sellafield Highly Active
Liquid tanks could require the evacuation of an area between Glasgow and Liverpool, and cause
around 2 million fatalities (8). The Massachusetts-based Institute for Resource and Security
Studies (IRSS) reported that highly radioactive liquid stored in tanks contained around 2,400
kilograms (kg) of Caesium-137 compared with the 30 kg released during the Chernobyl accident (9).
The ONR’s predecessor organisation, the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate (NII) warned in
2000 that the High Level Liquid Waste storage tanks at Sellafield needed to be emptied and the
waste solidified “as soon as reasonably practicable”, and levels must be reduced to a buffer level
by 2015. Any shortfall would be “publicly unacceptable” (10). In January 2001, the NII issued
BNFL with a legal requirement to reduce the level of dangerous, heat-generating, HLW stored
on site at Sellafield down to a residual or buffer stock by 2015 (11). Stocks needed to be reduced
from approximately 1600m3 at the time to a buffer stock of 200m3 by 2015.
Now, almost fifteen years later the ONR appears to be willing to allow Sellafield to hold a stock
of 600m3 in 2015 rather than a buffer stock of 200m3 as originally specified. How can this be
justified given that anything above 200m3 was described as politically unacceptable in 2001?
In response to this question ONR simply refers to its Project Assessment Report. (12) This
argues that in order to ensure that Sellafield Ltd continues to reduce hazard potential across the
Sellafield site it needs appropriate ‘operational flexibility’ to accelerate reprocessing and
vitrification programmes. In other words, the earlier recommendation for high level liquids to
reach a buffer level by 2015 was based on the expectation that reprocessing would be
completed by then.
ONR says it has revised the limit on the amount of high level liquid waste which can be stored at
Sellafield in 2015 because it needed to ensure that the limit was not too tight so as to ‘force’ the
cessation (or significant curtailment) of reprocessing because this would not be in the “best
interests of safety, as there is currently no viable alternative to reprocessing existing stocks
of irradiated Magnox or AGR fuel within reasonable timescales” (emphasis added).
It is very hard to understand why the ONR has not spent the last fifteen years pressing the NDA
and Sellafield Ltd to develop viable alternatives to reprocessing, rather than allowing itself to
get into a position whereby it now feels forced to sanction something which fifteen years ago it
deemed to be publicly unacceptable.
Dilapidated nuclear waste storage ponds
Dilapidated nuclear waste storage ponds (B29 and B30) abandoned 40 years ago containing
hundreds of tonnes of fuel rods pose an immediate danger to public safety, says The Ecologist
after receiving an anonymous clutch of photographs. The fuel and sludge in the ponds could
spontaneously ignite if exposed to air, spreading intense radiation over a wide area.
The photographs show the state of spent nuclear fuel storage ponds that were commissioned in
1952 and used until the mid-1970’s as short term storage for spent fuel until it could be
reprocessed, producing plutonium for military use. However they were completely abandoned
in the mid-1970s and have been left derelict for almost 40 years. The photographs show
cracked concrete tanks holding water contaminated with high levels of radiation, seagulls
bathing on the water, broken equipment, a dangerous mess of discarded items on elevated
walkways, and weeds growing around the tanks. The fuel storage ponds, the largest measuring
20m wide, 150m long and 6m deep, are now completely packed with spent fuel in disastrously
poor condition.
Nuclear expert John Large warns that massive and uncontrolled radioactive releases to the
environment could occur.
“This pond is built above ground”, he said. “It’s like a concrete dock full of water. But the concrete
is in dreadful condition, degraded and fractured, and if the ponds drain, the Magnox fuel will ignite
and that would lead to a massive release of radioactive material. Looking at the photos I am very
disturbed at the degraded and run down condition of the structures and support services. In my
opinion there is a significant risk that the system could fail. If you got a breach of the wall by
accident or by terrorist attack, the Magnox fuel would burn [and] give rise to a very big
radioactive release.” (13)
At the most recent Stakeholder Meeting held in October 2014, NDA Chief Executive, John Clarke
said:
“In a general sense, we know what is in the ponds – spent fuel. Specifically we don’t know what
form the spent fuel is in. Lots of work is going on to characterise, however, uncertainties will
remain until we get to the bottom of the ponds and see what is there. On the physical integrity of
the structures, we have taken core samples and they are actually in pretty good condition. They
wouldn’t meet modern standards but they are not in imminent danger of falling down. We are
using the most modern non-intrusive techniques and carrying out a raft of work to reduce risks,
particularly on retrieving the waste. All sorts of techniques are being considered for retrievals from No2NuclearPower
nuClear news No.70, January 2015 16
the pond … we are deploying underwater remotely operated submarines but we are always looking
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