Page last updated at 16:00 GMT, Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Nuclear shipment stirs inner emotions

By Jorn Madslien
Business reporter, BBC News, Sellafield


BBC reporter Jorn Madlien has had exclusive access to the Sellafield site where the nuclear waste is transported from

Standing next to a 113-tonne metal cylinder filled to the brim with highly radioactive waste is a good way to get the heart racing - especially when that cylinder is dangling mid-air from a moving crane.

But the small group of workers at the Sellafield nuclear complex remain calm during the careful loading of the first ever high-level nuclear waste shipment set to leave the UK.

"Watch your fingers, lads," one of the workers warns his colleagues as the cylinder, known as a flask in the industry, is lowered on to a specially built railway carriage strong enough to carry its weight.

But if the workers are cool, their cargo is hot.

The flask, which is being shipped to Japan, contains 28 steel canisters filled with high-level nuclear waste, each emitting heat.

As I brush against the steel surface, I can feel a warm breeze of air coming from the shiny metal.

Hot store

Radiation danger is on everyone's mind at Sellafield.

Workers study the waste on the ground
Nobody has to wear protective clothing in the high-level waste plant

Moving around the site involves endless safety checks. Geiger counters are used to check both people and equipment. Special boots and clothing are worn in many parts of the plant.

Security is tight too, though few places are as carefully watched as the High-Level Waste Plant here.

It is a vast, ordinary-looking warehouse containing more than 5,000 waste canisters that resemble large milk churns.

The canisters are stacked 10 high within the floor under two-metre thick concrete lids that shield us from the radiation. Consequently, no one in the building has to wear protective clothing.

Three workers in yellow jackets look at the tanker
The flask is specially built to contain the high-level waste canisters

A rhythmical beeping sound offered regular assurances that all was well. Nuclear workers only get concerned when the sound disappears.

Nevertheless, walking on top of one of the world's largest and most potent nuclear waste store feels strange, not least since the floor is heated by the canisters below.

But eeriness aside, there is nothing dangerous about being here, Sellafield officials insist.

Though radioactive, the way the high-level nuclear waste is encapsulated means it simply cannot leak.

Carefully wrapped

The same is true of the waste flask as it travels along the coastal railway to Barrow.

A train carries the waste
Waste shipments along Cumbria’s coast will soon be more common

Seeing the contentious cargo winding its way through the Cumbrian villages is a sign of things to come.

Over the next decade, about a third of the more than 5,000 high-level waste canisters currently in storage at Sellafield are set to be shipped back to Japan and continental Europe, which sent over spent fuel from their power plants for reprocessing during the 1980s and 1990s.

But it is not in the villages where the greatest controversy is expected.

No nation likes to have nuclear material travelling along its shoreline.

So the wind chill in Barrow is mild compared with the stormy protests that will be raised once the ship's route is revealed.

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