Unwanted and Unsafe ( SellafieldNuclear)

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Unwanted and Unsafe Source: The Irish Times Publication date: 2000-04-19

When any business is told bluntly that it must change or close, it can be expected that radical change would be introduced rapidly. It was a change or close ultimatum which forced the management and safety changes announced for Sellafield yesterday by British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL).

Last February's report on Sellafield by the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate was damning. The company, it said, suffered from "a lack of safety culture"; an extraordinary failing for a business in which safety must always be paramount. In essence, Sellafield is badly run. There is complete confusion among staff on which standards of safety and quality are acceptable. Because of cost-cutting, management checks on safety operations were dangerously insufficient. This was well known by BNFL and was disregarded. Widespread falsification of data occurred as a consequence. And yesterday it was announced that the company will undertake a retraining of staff. When you have deliberate refusal of staff to undertake vital safety procedures for a period of three years, a lot more is required than retraining.

Some heads are to roll. The Director of Safety is to leave as are the Directors of Finance and Human Resources. In addition, the company will replace all the non-executive directors over the next two years. A team of independent safety assessors will be appointed and more staff will be hired. In truth the measures are too little to restore confidence in the company's operations and too late to turn reprocessing into profit.

Nuclear power has had it. It was predicted that by this year there would be 4,000 atomic stations spread around the world; the actuality is less than 400. In the United States no nuclear plant has been commissioned in 20 years. The United Kingdom will never build another plant. The world's nuclear energy capacity is shrinking not just because it is unsafe but because it is too expensive. It was all meant to be so different; thousands of plants and a shortage of fuel - hence reprocessing to recover plutonium and uranium from reactor fuel. But now Sellafield is stuck with tons of plutonium and uranium which no-one wants.

Reprocessing pollutes the air and the sea with radioactivity and the process, by its nature, is unsafe. There is an alternative. Storage of used nuclear fuels carries less risk, does not release pollutants and the cost is less than half that of reprocessing. BNFL could have a viable future in storage and in clearing up the world's nuclear contamination - nearly (pounds) 400 billion worth of business in the US alone. The British government is letting the fear of job loss anger get in the way of safety and common-sense. It should face up to reality and close down a business which is uneconomic, unnecessary and, of most importance, unsafe.


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), April 24, 2000

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