Letter from CT chairman Eddie Martin to NDA (Nuclear Decommisioning Authority) chairman Stephen Henwood CBE

Stephen Henwood CBE
Chairman, Nuclear Decommisioning Authority
Herdus House (Head Office)
Westlakes Science & Technology Park
Moor Row
Cumbria, CA24 3HU
 
5th November 2014
 

Dear Mr. Henwood,

“Leaked Sellafield photos reveal ‘massive radioactive release’ threat”

“The Perilous State of Sellafield Storage Ponds”

You will be aware that the above titles, followed by lengthy narratives complete with apparently incriminating photographs, appeared respectively in The Ecologist and subsequently in The Guardian. A day or two later The Daily Telegraph and The Mirror featured the same story. Other media have since broadcast the article. Whilst I suspect that a slightly more forensic examination of ‘the facts’ by these newspapers might have produced a slightly less apocalyptic scenario, when respected media do produce such reports, which are then circulated nation-wide, the public – and, not least, the public of Cumbria – surely deserve a comprehensive, truthful and factual response… if not rebuttal.

Unfortunately, the response which finally emerged from Sellafield last Friday was entirely predictable and did little to inspire confidence, or additional confidence, in the successful management of the surface-held radioactive waste, especially that held in the ponds.

A Sellafield spokeman states “It is urgent that we clean up these ponds [but] it will be decades before they are cleaned up” (The Guardian 29/10/2014). And “The site’s overall radiological risk has never been properly assessed by the responsible authorities. [The] photos, showing disgracefully degraded open-air ponds at Sellafield, indicate that a thorough assessment of risk is overdue. (Gordon Thompson, USA).

However, the NDA response to the media also includes a quite startling revelation:“The pond’s overhead crane, which had been out of action since the 1990s, has been fixed and is now being used again.”

The admission that a key tool required for the maintenance of this most hazardous facility has been unusable for two decades is surely quite remarkable.  These ponds are so dangerous that apparently they are currently the NDA’s top priority, yet they appear to have been left to decay and degrade for many years without the availability of the most fundamental of mechanical equipment.

Indeed, whilst on the one hand the ONR deems the ponds to be “safe”, on the other, the Public Accounts Committee records that Sellafield poses an “intolerable risk to people and the environment”. Clearly the two pronouncements are irreconcilable. The general public  might be forgiven for being just a little confused, if not bewildered.

In 2013, as (Conservative) Leader of Cumbria County Council, ably supported by the (Labour) Deputy Leader, in our letter to the Secretary of State rejecting Stage 4 of the MRWS we implored him to afford much greater attention and investment in Sellafield’s surface storage facilities:

“… I spoke of the county council’s ardent support for Sellafield and argued for greater investment in the NDA facility and, indeed, in Copeland generally. Our support remains unabated and even, perhaps, more intense than before”. And: “The surface storage of nuclear waste at Sellafield needs – according the Public Accounts Committee and the NAO report – considerable enhancement and investment. We are arguing for that … but have received no assurance from DECC that it will happen”.

The Cumbria Trust, for irrefutable reasons we believe, is firmly opposed to a GDF in Cumbria, but we do welcome the government’s intent, expressed in the recent White Paper, to launch a national geological screening programme. We recognise however, that even if a potential site is identified, it will be many years before a GDF can be constructed and utilised. In the meantime, the careful management of waste at Sellafield must continue not only unabated but must, we assert, proceed with even greater intensity. It is an agreed objective of the Cumbria Trust to “Campaign for safer, longer term storage of nuclear waste currently at Sellafield and other UK nuclear licensed sites”.

However, there appears to be a fundamental disconnect between Sellafield/NDA/ONR/DECC and the many NGOs and general public who are opposed to, or at least extremely suspicious of, the motives and modus operandi of government-funded nuclear authorities such as those mentioned. The mistrust, which was increasingly apparent to some during the MRWS period and again with the publication of DECC’s Consultation document issue in September 2013, can only be significantly exacerbated by reports such as those which have recently appeared in the national media. I have suggested a private meeting of an invited audience with senior staff from Sellafield/NDA, at which frank and honest questions and concerns can be addressed by frank and honest answers. We have also suggested a community-wide newspaper delivered periodically to all dwellings in West Cumbria through which fears might be allayed and anxieties assuaged, answered by Sellafield but not written by Sellafield. The Cumbria Trust would welcome any measures which seek to address and reduce the wide-spread scepticism if not cynicism of the nuclear waste industry.

However, and in particular:

Given that the Sellafield “Legacy Ponds” which were featured in the recent Guardian newspaper/Ecologist magazine articles, are over 60 years old, contain significant amounts of spent Magnox nuclear fuel and other radioactively contaminated nuclear waste items, are covered with water for cooling purposes, were originally pronounced, in the mid 1970’s as for “short term storage until it can be reprocessed”, are open to the elements, known to be leaking into the ground and, in the case of B30, are located within 150m of the River Calder, we would be obliged if the NDA would state what action it is taking to:-

  1. Prevent transfer of radioactive contamination, by birds or other creatures that may have access to the open contents of such ponds, to members of the public and/or property, outside the boundary of the nuclear licensed site.
  2. Prevent leakage, through the ground surrounding these old and known -to-have-leaked, ponds, to areas outside the nuclear licensed site and, specifically, into the River Calder.
  3. Recover the contents of these ponds for assay and assessment of their nuclear and radioactive status.
  4. Commence reprocessing of appropriate items of the recovered Magnox fuel
  5. Compact, encapsulate or vitrify, as appropriate, and the safe storage, of the contents of these ponds.
  6. Decommission, demolish and safely dispose of the existing outdated and insecure pond buildings, structures and equipment.

Further, given the potential for a failure of one or more these ageing structures, which could lead to a breach of licence, injury or damage to an operative, injury or damage to the health of a nearby residents, travellers on the adjacent rail transport system, members of the public, or damage to the environment, will the NDA please produce a programme of what they intend to do to safely decommission these ponds and state by what time they intend to do it?

My Cumbria Trust colleagues are asking many more questions, such as:

  • How correct or accurate are the articles recently published in the media?
  • If the published photographs are not accurate may we have photographs of the remediated ponds?
  • Where is the fuel currently being housed once removed from the ponds?
  • Does the build project complete & deliver the 100 year interim storage solution?
  • What types of waste will this facility house and is there any other waste that requires a further solution before the waste storage “intolerable” risk level is tolerable?
  • Does any “independent” civil engineers report exist on the integrity of these tanks and if so, how current is it?  If not, when is one planned to be commissioned?
  • Are there any other projects that could have milestones that impact on the success of projects 1 & 2

The NDA and Sellafield assert that they are “open and transparent”; notwithstanding security requirements and commercial-in-confidence stringencies, we believe there is considerably more that both the NDA and Sellafield (and DECC) could yet do, if not to win the hearts and minds of the general public and of the sceptics, at least to alleviate many of the understandable concerns.

In a spirit of amiability and cooperation, the Cumbria Trust would be pleased to discuss further with you or your colleagues the issues raised.

Yours sincerely,

Eddie Martin

c.c. John Clark, NDA
Jon Phillips, NDA
Baroness Verma, DECC
Rory Stewart, MP
Tim. Farron, MP
Lord Frank Judd, HoL.
Prof. Andy Blowers
Dr. David Lowry
CT Members

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