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Sellafield attack 'could be worse than Chernobyl'

Paul Brown, environment correspondent Tuesday October 23, 2001 The Guardian

An EU report says an accident at Britain's Sellafield nuclear plant could cause greater damage than the Chernobyl explosion in Ukraine in 1986. The report, leaked on the same day that MEPs in Strasbourg discussed safety at nuclear sites following the September 11 attacks, paints a harrowing picture of the disaster which could follow an accident in the high level waste tanks at the Cumbrian reprocessing plant.

Fears that the waste problem was worsening have led to the nuclear installations inspectorate temporarily closing the reprocessing works last month.

The inspectorate has frequently warned British Nuclear Fuels, which operates the plants, it could not allow the situation to continue with 1,550 cubic metres of high level liquid waste remaining untreated.

The report, compiled for the EU by environmental group Wise Paris before September 11, said events that could trigger an atmospheric release of high level radioactive waste at the plant included explosions and air crashes.

"The long term consequences of a release from the Sellafield high level waste tanks could be much greater than the consequences of the Chernobyl accident due to the large amounts of caesium-137 and other radioisotopes in the tanks," it said.

The Chernobyl nuclear accident exposed 5m Europeans to increased levels of radiation. Hundreds of children in Russia and the Ukraine have cancer as a result.

The report said some emissions from Sellafield had contained radiation in excess of levels recommended both by the EU and under the Ospar convention for the protection of the marine environment in the northeast Atlantic.

Britain's decision this month to expand Sellafield with the commissioning of a mixed oxide (MOX) plant provoked protest in Ireland, which has long campaigned for the closure of facilities there.

The Irish government has launched legal proceedings under EU law, and is considering a claim under the United Nations convention on law of the sea. Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace have also launched a case against the government but in the UK high court.

A spokeswoman for the Irish government department with responsibility for nuclear matters said it had not yet obtained a copy of the report.

"However, if media reports prove to have substance then it further justifies the Irish government's legal action against the British authorities," she said.

The report, Possible toxic effects from the nuclear reprocessing plants at Sell afield (UK) and Cap de la Hague (France), compiled for the EU's scientific and technological assessment committee, has not been published.

The committee is expected to meet in Strasbourg today to hear independent views before making a decision on whether to release it.

Irish Green party MEP Nuala Ahern said the closed nature of the meeting was highly irregular. "I'm going to stand up in the [European] parliament and say I have a copy, I believe it should be released to members and anyone who wants it I'm prepared to give it to them," she said.

In the parliament in Strasbourg yesterday, Green MEP Caroline Lucas called for anti-aircraft measures, no-fly and offshore exclusion zones to be established at nuclear power stations and reprocessing facilities in the EU, particularly at Sellafield and La Hague.

Dr Lucas said: "After September 11, all nuclear facilities must be shut down as rapidly as possible. Operations like reprocessing at Sellafield were never constructed with a terrorist attack in mind...

"If a plane crashed into ... Sellafield, it has been calculated that it would release 44 times as much radioactivity as the Chernobyl disaster, and could cause more than 2m cancers," she said.,3604,578949,00.html

-- Martin Thompson (, October 22, 2001

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