Whitehaven News

The Whitehaven News


Thursday, April 05, 2001

By Dave Siddall

WHILE nuclear inspectors report that BNFL is winning in its task of tackling old atomic waste backlogs, engineers are trying to devise a safe method of dealing with a "black hole" of lethal radioactive debris from the 1957 Windscale fire. Nobody knows exactly how dangerous the mass of nuclear fuel and unclassified high level waste was dumped into the six concrete vaults of B41 at Sellafield.

But after a decade of planning, a delicate operation is being drawn up to start to investigate and deal with the problem.

In 1996 an Nuclear Installations Inspectorate safety audit said: "In addition to magnox swarf, graphite items from the reactor piles and a variety of wastes including those recovered from the 1957 fire in Pile One remain in this silo.

"There is little data on the contents of the vaults in terms of activity or form."

It stated the debris would also contain bits of reactor fuel elements. "There is no segregation of the wastes. Wastes were simply tipped into the vaults through a five foot square hole.''

BNFL agreed in 1996 that the storage was "inadequate for the long term".

The building was criticised in the 1986 safety audit and after that warning extra fire fighting and warning systems were installed. The NII stated that "At the time when the vaults were filled no details of the wastes were recorded. Therefore, apart from the wastes that can be seen with cameras on the surface, no other information appears to exist.''

Sellafield spokeswoman Ali Dunlop said B41 was regarded as an intermediate level waste store. She said in conjunction with contractors AMEC "an overbuilding would be created over the silos to enable the waste to be safely retrieved and repackaged.

"Safety is the priority...it is a long term project.''

nOn Friday the nuclear inspector who criticised the West Cumbrian site in a series of hard-hitting reports last year announced that safety was improving at the complex.

But Lawrence Williams, HM's chief inspector of nuclear installations, added that there was still a lot of work to be done, with agreement so far reached on only three of the 28 recommendations drawn up by his independent team.

Mr Williams ssaid: "I am pleased so far with the progress. The management changes that have been made have been for the better. It is so far so good but there is still a long way to go yet."

He expected the other 25 recommendations to be satisfied by the end of next year. BNFL has already drawn up plans to tackle the three main areas of concern.

Mr Williams, who has a team of eight inspectors at Sellafield, added: "If I wasn't sure things at that plant weren't safe. I would take the regulatory action to stop operations."

His comments came after a meeting with the Sort Out Sellafield (SOS) group at the West Lakes Science and Technology Park near Whitehaven on Friday.

SOS chairman and Copeland MP Dr Jack Cunningham said the progress was making Sellafield a safer place to work in and live near. He said: "It is good news. The company's reaction has been very positive. BNFL was left in no doubt that it had simply been going in the wrong direction in terms of managing the Sellafield site."