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Workers used forged passes at Sellafield Jonathan Leake, Science Editor
SELLAFIELD, the troubled nuclear reprocessing plant, faces a new security scandal after four workers were sacked for forging entry passes. The workers had been given limited clearance to enter specific low-risk parts of the plant on foot but altered them to gain access to more sensitive areas - with their vehicles.
The deception, thought to have fooled security guards for several weeks, has caused fury among senior managers. BNFL has already been threatened with the loss of crucial contracts with Japan and Germany because its staff forged quality control documents.
A Sellafield spokesman said the latest forgeries had been discovered by a security guard during a routine check.
"Four workers had altered their passes to allow them to bring vehicles on site," he said. "They had their passes removed and have been allowed to resign by the contractors who employed them rather than face disciplinary action."
British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL) claimed this weekend that the men had forged the passes simply because they wanted to get their cars into the plant. Other workers said that made no sense since the men already had parking spaces by the main gate, from which regular buses would ferry them to their workplace.
There are 10,000 workers on the Sellafield site, of whom about 2,000 are employed by independent contractors.
Last week the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) constabulary - a force maintained specially to police Britain's nuclear installations - were still questioning 200 workers after another incident in which an unknown worker sabotaged robot arms in a nuclear reprocessing plant.
The incident was not just embarrassing; it was also potentially highly dangerous. The robot arms were used in the vitrification plant, where nuclear waste is prepared for storage by being encased in a glass-like material and then in concrete.
The damage done to cables in the vitrification plant is the second instance of deliberate and serious sabotage. Last September two mixed oxide fuel rods were found to contain screws and solid debris.
Judging by the track record of the UKAEA police, however, there is little chance of the culprits being caught. Its last annual report showed that of 158 thefts reported at the plants it oversees, just 17 were detected. Similarly, only three out of 20 other incidents of criminal damage were solved.
The revelations mark the culmination of a bad week for BNFL and Sellafield. Michael Meacher, the environment minister, has been pressing for an end to reprocessing, which has already left Britain with a stockpile of more than 50 tonnes of useless but deadly plutonium, and Hugh Collum, BNFL chairman, confirmed last week that the firm might have to "look at the unthinkable" and put an end to the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel rods into new fuel.
Martin O'Neill, chairman of the Commons trade and industry select committee, also told Collum his firm's financial records were of a "byzantine complexity" and threatened to ask for an investigation by the National Audit Office if they were not improved.
The select committee hearing followed an announcement by the government that it was postponing plans to privatise BNFL until after the next election because of safety considerations.
This weekend Greenpeace released a leaked draft of a report by the Nuclear Energy Agency, an international monitoring body, which said that radioactive discharges to the environment would fall sharply if waste were stored rather than reprocessed.
Late last week both Ireland and Denmark called on parties to the Ospar convention on the protection of the northeast Atlantic to agree to a ban on nuclear reprocessing when they meet in June.
BNFL is not, however, alone in its problems. This weekend Cogema, its French equivalent, faced allegations that the safety records it kept for its fuel pellets were misleading.
The German environment ministry ordered the checks on mixed oxide fuel made at Cogema's Cadarache plant in southern France after it emerged that "software problems" had caused gaps in the company's records.
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-- Martin Thompson (firstname.lastname@example.org), April 01, 2000