Panel attacks Britain's beleaguered nuclear industry

A heavy cloud hangs over Britain's nuclear industry. An all-party parliamentary select committee on the environment came out with a blistering attack Wednesday on the country's controversial nuclear complex at Sellafield here in northwest England.

The committee said discharges from the Sellafield plant had made the Irish Sea ``the most radioactive stretch of water in the world.'' The committee, which compared Sellafield with plants in other countries, called the waste disposal arrangements at Sellafield ``amateurish, haphazard, and ad hoc.

The report could inhibit an industry that is already two years behind schedule as it awaits a government decision on whether or not to go ahead with another nuclear power station on England's opposite coast.

The committee had started its inquiry long before four leaks had occurred at the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing plant over a five week period this year.

The report is certain to increase the public clamor to close down Sellafield, a possibility that Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher has so far refused to consider. The government has been sensitive, however, to the outcry over a series of radiation leaks. To allay public uneasiness over Sellafield, it recently sent in a team of government safety experts to monitor the plant. The experts could insist that parts of the plant close down or that much stricter safety standards be enforced.

The arrival of the safety experts -- which preceeded the publication of the parliamentary report by several weeks -- came in response to a spate of damaging publicity.

The European Parliament has already called for Sellafield to close down, and Ireland has registered strong protests at the amount of radioactive waste discharged into the Irish Sea. The Irish government has been angered by British attempts to play down recent accidents at Sellafield as ``trivial.''

The parliamentary committee recommended that ``new numerical liquid discharge limits, radically lower than the current one, should be set for all nuclear plants in the United Kingdom.''

British Nuclear Fuels Limited, a wholly government-owned company, was described as being ``out of step with the rest of the world'' and a ``byword for the dirty end of the industry.''

Sellafield is one of only two full-cycle nuclear power plants in the world, importing spent fuel from Western Europe and Japan and reprocessing it into enriched reusable uranium, plutonium which is used in the production of nuclear weapons, and a greatly reduced amount of radioactive waste.

The report casts a long shadow over plans to construct another plant at Sizewell in Suffolk County. Unlike Britain's first stage Magnox (magnesium oxide) nuclear power stations, and its second stage advanced gas-cooled reactors, Sizewell would operate based on the United States pressurized water reactor system. It would be the first of its kind in Britain.

While the outcome to an inquiry into building Sizewell is awaited, hardly a week goes by without the news media highlighting yet another radiation leak or some failure to undertake more stringent security checks at the Sellafield site.

Among the most damaging revelations about Sellafield was the government's recent admission that discharges of radioactive material at the facility between 1952 and 1955 were 40 times higher than stated at the time of an inquiry three years ago.

After four radiation leaks during five weeks in February and March -- some admittedly minor -- the New Scientist, Britain's leading science magazine, began asking, ``Is this the end of the line for Sellafield?''

Although the New Scientist has added its voice to a rising chorus of demands to close down Sellafield, the government seems determined that Britain should remain in the business of reprocessing spent fuel.

The government believes that many of the media reports are blown out of proportion, and that when it comes to accidents and actual fatalities, the nuclear industry in Britain emerges with a better record than either the chemical industry or the fuel-related coal and gas industries.

Jake Kelly, manager of information services at Sellafield, is also critical of sensational and ignorant media reporting of a highly technical industry. ``We've had horrific stories about the `village of the damned'. . . and green spiders climbing out of the plutonium pipes. The only reason is to frighten the life out of people.''

Environmentalists charge, in turn, that British Nuclear Fuels Limited too easily shrugs off serious criticisms or downgrades their importance.

One report indicates that the rate of leukemia among children in the nearby village of Seascale was 10 times the national average.

Critics of the nuclear power industry also claim that the government wants to play down fears about the industry because reprocessing has become such a lucrative business.

As the world's leading commercial producer of reprocessed fuel, British Nuclear Fuels has reprocessed in excess of 26,000 tons of fuel since 1952. Apart from Sellafield, the only other known commercial reprocessing plant in the world is at Cap La Hague in France. It is a much smaller reprocessing plant than Sellafield.

As a result of transporting and reprocessing spent fuel from Japan, Sellafield has become Britain's largest yen earner. And this could increase in the future. Sellafield has received a 1.7 billion pound ($2.5 billion) advance payment from Japan to build a more sophisticated reprocessing facility. The plant, known as a THORP (Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant), is already under construction and is expected to come on stream in 1991.

Right now the focus of the safety experts' attention at Sellafield will be on Building 205, which was built in the 1960s. Here, stripped fuel rods are dissolved in nitric acid, and plutonium and enriched uranium are separated from the spent nuclear fuel.

But on Feb. 5 an ``amber alert'' sounded in the building when plutonium mist escaped from a pump undergoing repairs. Fifteen workers were contaminated. Amber alert is the first warning in a three-stage alert system.

The safety audit, which promises an independent impartial survey, could give the plant a clean bill of health. If it does, it would go a long way toward removing the cloud of distrust that hangs over Sellafield.

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