The Nonsense of Nuclear Fuel Reprocessing

Dr. Ian Fairlie

The Nonsense of Nuclear Fuel Reprocessing

Many readers will have seen the interesting Panorama programme on the poor safety
record at Sellafield broadcast on BBC 1 on September 5
The BBC press release stated this was a special investigation into the shocking state of
Britain’s most hazardous nuclear plant…” and it certainly was. Perhaps the most important
of several whistleblower revelations was that the previous US managers had been shocked
at the state of the plant when they took over its running in 2008.
Although the programme producers are to be congratulated for tackling the subject, it was
only 30 minutes long and tells only a small part of the whole sorry story.
This article tries to give more background information, and importantly, more analysis and
explanation. The full story would require several books and would be painful reading.

What is reprocessing?

Reprocessing is the name given to the physico-chemical treatment of spent nuclear fuel
carried on at Sellafield in Cumbria since the 1950s. This involves the stripping of metal
cladding from spent nuclear fuel assemblies, dissolving the inner uranium fuel in boiling
concentrated nitric acid, chemically separating out the uranium and plutonium isotopes and
storing the remaining dissolved fission products in large storage tanks.
It is a dirty, dangerous, unhealthy, polluting, expensive process which results high radiation
doses to the ~9,000 workers employed at Sellafield.

Environmental consequences

The Sellafield plant is host to several hundred radioactive waste streams and processes
which result in large discharges of radioactive liquids to sea and emissions of radioactive
gases and aerosols to the atmosphere. Raised levels of childhood leukemias in some villages
nearby are considered to be linked to the inhalation and ingestion of these radionuclides.
Sellafield, and a similar plant in La Hague France, continue to be, by some margin, the
largest sources of radioactive pollution in the world. For example, the Irish Sea is the most
radioactively polluted sea in the world with about half a tonne of plutonium sitting on its
seabed from reprocessing.
The collective doses to the world’s population from the long-lived gaseous nuclides C-14,
and I-129, and from medium-lived Kr-85 and H-3 (tritium) emitted at Sellafield are huge and
are estimated by radiation biologists to cause tens of thousands of early deaths throughout
the world.
Another result is the 140 tonnes of unneeded, highly radiotoxic, plutonium (Pu) stored on
site at a cost of £50 million a year. Pu is fissile and, in the wrong hands, this amount could
be made into ~20,000 warheads, ie it is a serious nuclear proliferation danger.

The Liquid Waste Tanks

Shitty open-air pond at Sellafield nuclear waste dump containing spent nuclear fuel rods.
Shitty open-air pond at Sellafield nuclear waste dump containing spent nuclear fuel rods.
Not discussed in the BBC programme, but perhaps most serious of all, are the ~20 large
holding tanks at Sellafield containing thousands of litres of extremely radiotoxic fission
products, including long-lived Cs-137and Sr-90. Discussing these tanks, the previous
management consortium Nuclear Management Partners stated in 2012 “there is a mass of
very hazardous (nuclear) waste onsite in storage conditions that are extraordinarily
vulnerable, and in facilities that are well past their designated life”.
The National Audit Office (NAO) stated these tanks pose “significant risks to people and the
environment”. One official review concluded that, at worst, an explosive release from the
tanks could kill two million Britons and require the evacuation of an area reaching from
Glasgow to Liverpool. These dangerous tanks have also been the subject of complaints from
Ireland and Norway who fear their countries could be contaminated if explosions or fires
were to occur.

 

Lets not mince words, the practice of reprocessing at Sellafield has been and remains a
monumental national disgrace.
Another seabird in one of Sellafield nuclear dump's open-air ponds.
Another seabird in one of Sellafield nuclear dump’s open-air ponds.

The shocking state of the Sellafield nuclear shitehole

Continue ReadingThe Nonsense of Nuclear Fuel Reprocessing

The shocking state of the Sellafield nuclear shitehole

Sellafield – originally called Windscale but the name was changed as a PR stunt after the 1957 Windscale fire – was built initially as a plant producing plutonium to build the UK’s first nuclear bombs. Political pressures dictated that the plutonium was produced quickly … so that the UK would have nuclear bombs sooner. Everything was secondary to producing the plutonium quickly. There’s also the issue that there was very little experience or expertise in running nuclear reactors – it had only been done in the States at that time. UK and USSR were desperate to catch up.

The Sellafield site is a huge sprawling mess of past endeavours. It is now a nuclear shitehole having accumulated foreign as well as UK’s nuclear waste extremely poorly stored and mismanaged. Sellafield is a filthy nuclear waste site that dumps thousands of litres of radioactive waste into the Irish Sea daily.

Central to Sellafield’s crap storage of nuclear waste are vast open-air storage ponds 5 or 6 metres deep. There is nothing high-tech about these ponds – they are simply rotting concrete ponds dating from the 50s containing water and highly radioactive waste open to the elements. There are accounts of flocks of seagulls, sparrows and other birds spreading this radioactivity since there is no way of preventing them.

Since Sellafield’s workers sign the Official Secrets Act, we rely on whistle-blowers for inside information. A whistle-blower leaked photos of the shocking ponds to the Ecologist magazine in 2014. [These photos are actually taken from the Guardian].

Shitty open-air pond at Sellafield nuclear waste dump containing spent nuclear fuel rods. Notice the seabird on the surface getting a dose of radiation to spread far and wide.
Shitty open-air pond at Sellafield nuclear waste dump containing spent nuclear fuel rods. Notice the seabird on the surface getting a dose of radiation to spread far and wide.
Weeds growing around derelict machinery at Sellafield nuclear waste dump.
Weeds growing around derelict machinery at Sellafield nuclear waste dump.
Another seabird in one of Sellafield nuclear dump's open-air ponds.
Another seabird in one of Sellafield nuclear dump’s open-air ponds.

The Ecologist says

The images … from an anonymous source, 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 re-processed, producing plutonium for military use. However they were completely abandoned in the mid-1970s and have been left derelict for almost 40 years.

NOTE: The full set of original leaked photos is now placed in the public domain, available here.

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.

If the ponds drain, the spent fuel may spontaneously ignite

The ponds are now undergoing decommissioning in order to restore them to safe condition. But the process is fraught with danger – and nuclear expert John Large warns that massive and uncontrolled radioactive releases to the environment could occur.

“This pond is build above ground”, he said. “It’s like an 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. I would say there’s many hundreds of tonnes in there. It could give rise to a very big radioactive release. It’s not for me to make comparisons with Chernobyl or Fukushima, but it could certainly cause serious contamination over a wide area and for a very long time.”

New Scientist: Shocking state of world’s riskiest nuclear waste site

URGENT clean-up of two of the world’s most dangerous radioactive waste stores will be delayed by at least five years, despite growing safety fears.

The waste is stored at the UK’s Sellafield nuclear reprocessing site, which holds radioactive waste dating back to the dawn of the nuclear age. An accident at the derelict site could release radioactive materials into the air over the UK and beyond.

Last week, the UK government sacked the private consortium running the £80-billion-programme to clean up Sellafield, and gave the job back to its own agency, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA). The clean-up operation, scheduled to end by 2120, costs the government £1.9 billion a year.

The private consortium, Nuclear Management Partners, was meant to “bring in world-class expertise” and allow the government to “get to grips with the legacy after decades of inaction”, according to a 2008 statement by Mike O’Brien, energy minister at the time. But six years on, the privatisation experiment has been abandoned.

The surprise renationalisation comes after delays at two of the four waste stores prioritised for clean-up. The four ponds and silos contain hundreds of tonnes of highly radioactive material from more than 60 years of operations. The decaying structures are cracking, leaking waste into the soil, and are at risk of explosions from gases created by corrosion.

 

 

Continue ReadingThe shocking state of the Sellafield nuclear shitehole

Coming soon: filthy nuclear

I intend to bring a series about filthy nuclear soon.

It seems that the real issue is and always has been nuclear waste.

I am very disappointed by so-called pro-nuclear environmentalists e.g. Monbiot. I sincerely hope that they reconsider their positions/perspectives. I find it very strange that such people are so concerned by farmyard shit pollution of streams while being indifferent to plutonium shit pollution of the Irish Sea.

I’ve been researching this lately. It is clear the Windscale / Sellafield is a total nuclear shithhole. They have vast open-air radioactive ponds there. Pigeons and seagulls have landed in these serious radioactive ponds to spread radioactivity far and wide.

The Windscale Fire in 1957 was hugely covered up. Radioactivity spread to South-East England and to Europe while Windscale workers were told to work as normal and not tell anyone. UK children have plutonium in their teeth, more according to how close to Sellafield they are. UK authorities have succeeded in conspiring that their childhood leukaemias are not caused by Windscale/Sellafield.

Continue ReadingComing soon: filthy nuclear