Thursday, November 01, 2001

The UKAEA has had a top-level warning about its ability to safely handle the dismantling of the plutonium reactor that was the source of the 1957 Windscale disaster.

The Whitehaven News has obtained confidential documents which show the watchdog body the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate (NII) had at one stage "lost confidence in the ability of the UKAEA to carry out Pile 1 decommissioning safely''.

Pile 1 is the reactor which caught fire and spewed radiation across the North of England in 1957.

There is still fused and mangled radioactive fuel inside the core of this reactor. The uranium and plutonium is still giving off low levels of heat and its safe handling is a unique challenge.

UKAEA spokesman Andy Munn said: "You are right to say the Pile 1 project is halted and in limbo.

"There was a technical review carried out by the consortium of BNFL/Rolls Royce/Nukem and UKAEA and they found that the technical solution proposed was not feasible.

"The proposals had certain failings in terms of remote handling, it has all got to be looked at again.

"There is still an ongoing review.''

Matters came to a head last December soon after vital cooling fans failed to operate through the night after maintenance had been carried out.

The ventilation is needed as a precaution on the old plutonium reactor.

UKAEA confirmed the ventilation failure but said the NII was informed and they did not regard it as a notifiable incident and there was no resultant leak of radioactive contamination.

The leaked letter, which is from the principal inspector of Nuclear Installations, Peter Watson, and to the head of Windscale site, dated March 9, 2001, reads: "I am grateful to UKAEA for the thoroughness of the investigations and the clarity of reports. But I hope you will agree that the reports paint a disturbing picture of complacency and isolationism within the management of the Pile 1 project."

The letter goes on to say: "Until the NII is satisfied as to the adequacy of Pile 1 safety management we are unlikely to agree to any modifications.''

Mr Munn said that management changes were taking place and "Peter Watson of the NII has welcomed the changes".

A statement issued by the UKAEA yesterday said: "UKAEA responded positively to the issues raised by the NII site inspector. This included improvements to strengthen supervision and control of the project.

"We are confident that the NII is now satisfied with the safety management on the project."

NII spokesman Mark Wheeler said: "We did raise concerns in March but I understand the concerns have been largely addressed to the satisfaction of the NII.''