Panorama, the BBC investigative journalism program, released a new documentary this week on the Sellafield nuclear power plant (formerly called Windscale) in England warning that areas of the complex are dangerously rundown. The film titled “Sellafield’s Nuclear Safety Failings” was first broadcast on BBC One on September 5th.
The Sellafield facility is one of the world’s most dangerous radioactive wastes sites and is widely known as being home to some of the first nuclear reactors of the atomic age, enormous pools of mysterious radioactive sludge, leaking silos storing nuclear waste, and the potential risk of fire and explosions from gases generated by corrosion, but it also has a long secret history of safety failures, accidents, leaks, spills, scandals and cover-ups dating back to the 1950s.
Sellafield is home to four decommissioned nuclear reactors, nuclear fuel reprocessing facilities, and vast amounts of nuclear waste. The Sellafield site is also the location of “the most hazardous industrial building in western Europe” (Building B30) and the second-most hazardous building (Building B38), which hold a variety of leftovers from the first Magnox plants in ageing ponds. Many of the facilities were constructed with sole consideration given to the technical challenges faced by designers, with no thought given to how they would ultimately be decommissioned.
The BBC investigation highlights safety problem after safety problem, but largely centers around claims of dangerous handling of radioactive materials, the aging and degradation of critical safety equipment, and inadequate staffing levels.
While Sellafield no longer generates electricity or reprocesses nuclear waste, it still stores nearly all of Great Britain’s nuclear waste. The facility has been described as the “most hazardous” site in all of Britain by the United Kingdom’s National Audit Office, and poses significant risks to people or the environment.
The BBC documentary investigation was initiated after testimony of a whistleblower who used to be a senior manager of the Sellafield facility. One of the greatest concerns listed by the whistleblower is that if a critical fire were to break out and reach the silos of nuclear waste stored on-site that it could generate a plume of radioactive materials that would be spread across Western Europe. Some of these silos contain pyrophoric (will ignite if exposed to air) and highly radioactive nuclear wastes including cladding and fuel elements.
The whistleblower featured in the BBC documentary says that many of the problems it identified over the course of its investigation were indeed simple and not very complex, like staffing issues. In the one year span between July 2012 and July 2013, there were 97 recorded incidents where some facilities at the side did not have adequate minimum staffing levels on shift. Staffing levels are one of the key performance indicators for Sellafield and any deviation from safe minimum staffing levels is not acceptable according to Sellafield documents.
BBC was able to acquire a report from 2013 which documents in photographs how physically rundown and degraded certain areas of the plant have become. Documents clearly illustrated how years of neglect ultimately lead to intolerable conditions in some areas of the site.
The documentary also exposed how radioactive materials were not handled or stored appropriately, because of a lack of investment of Sellafield managers in equipment that would more safely store the hazardous radioactive materials at the site. The film uncovered how thousands of plastic bottles, designed for temporary storage use, are being used for the storage of liquids containing plutonium and uranium, and the storage containers are now degrading.
Rex Strong, head of nuclear safety at Sellafield, was interviewed for the documentary. Strong commented on the storage of uranium and plutonium in plastic bottles, “The organization is now focusing on putting right some underinvestment of the past in order to support the hazard and waste reduction mission that the site has.”
David Pethick, Director of Nuclear Management Partners – a company formerly contracted to own and operate the Sellafield facility, says that the infrastructure that was in place at Sellafield when they arrived to manage the facility was “very poor”.
In the film, Jack Devine, former Chief Decommissioning Officer at Sellafield cautions the viewer that at Sellafield we are in a race against a ticking clock, and at some time that clock will run out and be a problem.
The documentary has been criticized by current operators of the Sellafield complex who claim they have made investments over recent years to make the facility safer in response to pressure applied on them by nuclear safety regulators.
According to recent estimates, it will take over $216.4 billion USD and at least a 100 years to decontaminate and decommission the Sellafield complex.