England's Sellafield nuclear plant could soon be closed

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Shut call after leaks, lies at nuclear plant Source: SouthChinaMorningPost Publication date: 2000-03-30

Europe's only nuclear reprocessing plant could soon be closed following revelations of sabotage, falsification of safety reports and other aspects of mismanagement that have raised questions over its credibility.

Nordic environment ministers this week met their Irish counterpart to launch a campaign to close the Sellafield plant on England's northwest coast that has been found to have been polluting the North Sea.

Coastal currents have been carrying radioactive pollution from Britain to Ireland and Denmark that experts have linked to growing cancer rates.

Communities on the east coast of Ireland just 130km from the British fuel plant have recorded the highest rates of some cancers anywhere in Europe.

"Patients have been coming into my surgery with conditions that have shown an exceptional number of cases of cancers that are way above the normal average," said Dr Mary Grehan, who runs a medical practice in the town of Dundalk.

"There is 80 miles of sea between us and Sellafield, but all the research shows that the water is just a soup of nuclear pollution that has led to unreasonable levels of radiation in our town."

Dundalk, with a population of just 40,000, has recorded some of the highest levels of stomach and thyroid cancer of any community in Europe, which the doctor believes can only be a result of the nuclear waste pumped in to the water which washes on to the town's shores.

"Most of us still function with the idea that we trust our neighbours and that they would do the right thing but now we feel they have let us down," Dr Grehan, who is also a member of the local county council, said.

But the news this week that European ministers had combined to put pressure on the British to close the plant had given the people of Dundalk new confidence.

"Ireland has long been opposed to nuclear power yet we have had to bear the cost without reaping any of the benefits," Dr Grehan said.

"The British have pumped about half a tonne of plutonium into the Irish Sea over the past 40 years and now at last it seems like it is coming to an end."

Britain has continually refused to accept claims by the Irish and Danish governments that waste from the Sellafield plant in Cumbria represents a health risk.

But this week Irish Energy Minister Joe Jacob revealed that the site could be forced to close within three months.

His comment came after he met his Danish counterpart, Svend Auken, when they agreed to recommend for the closure to Ospar, an international maritime authority due to meet in June.

Mr Jacob said a proposal to be drawn up before the Ospar meeting, to which Britain is a signatory, would call for the automatic closure of Sellafield.

The proposal came after it emerged earlier this week that police had been called in to the nuclear reprocessing plant to investigate alleged sabotage after equipment was apparently deliberately damaged.

Detectives from the Atomic Energy Authority are continuing investigations at the plant and are interviewing 160 staff who worked in an area where wires for remote-control equipment were cut.

A report by the Nuclear Installation Inspectorate last month revealed safety records at the plant had been systematically falsified.

The operators of the plant, BNFL (British Nuclear Fuels Ltd), are also being prosecuted over a leak of concentrated nitric acid which injured two employees.

Germany and Switzerland recently suspended dealings with the plant and Japan has insisted a consignment of nuclear fuel, delivered with falsified papers, be returned.

Managers at the Swiss nuclear safety inspectorate have said permission to send fuel-rod consignments to Sellafield would not be granted until they were satisfied by significant safety improvements.

The head of the troubled plant, Brian Watson, admitted the safety scares and scandals had left the future of Sellafield in doubt.

"We recognise from events over the last few months that we have moved into a situation of loss of confidence in BNFL," Mr Watson said.

Publication date: 2000-03-30


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), March 30, 2000

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