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Thursday, July 23, 1998 Published at 14:59 GMT 15:59 UK


Sellafield - plant with an image problem

Sellafield: one of the largest nuclear plants in the world

Termed "the nuclear dustbin of the world" by environmental campaigners, the Sellafield nuclear plant has acquired an image that even the most adept public relations managers have found hard to shake off.

Its main business is the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel. It is a tricky business. Few people in the world do it, although it can be very lucrative.

[ image: The plant provides a much needed source of local employment]
The plant provides a much needed source of local employment
It also produces some very nasty by-products.

Controversial history

Sellafield is one of the biggest nuclear plants in the world and has courted its fair share of controversy.

In 1957, a reactor known as Pile 1, which used to produce plutonium for British nuclear weapons, was the scene of Britain's worst nuclear accident.

Sellafield provides jobs for thousands in an area of Cumbria where there are few other employment alternatives. But it also discharges radioactivity into the Irish Sea.

Although the quantities discharged have been going down, environmental campaigners and countries which border onto the Irish and North Seas say it remains too much.

Global reprocessing centre

For years trains from across Britain have brought flasks containing used fuel from nuclear power stations around the world.

[ image: Spent nuclear fuel arrives in reinforced flasks]
Spent nuclear fuel arrives in reinforced flasks
On arrival, the fuel is put into large storage ponds and later the fuel is dissolved in acid. The useful chemicals are then reclaimed and the radioactive waste is then stored.

This reprocessing produces a lot of waste water. Over a million gallons of this water are discharged every day.

Decontamination programme

During the 1970s, that water was heavily contaminated and radioactivity began to accumulate in shellfish and sea weed. This was a potential threat to people who ate them

[ image: Millions of gallons of waste water are discharged from Sellafield's fuel ponds]
Millions of gallons of waste water are discharged from Sellafield's fuel ponds
Since then, British Nuclear Fuels Ltd (BNFL), the company which owns Sellafield, has spent £750m building decontamination plants to reduce radioactivity in the water before it is discharged into the sea,

BNFL safety advisor Colin Partington says the amount of radioactivity discharged has dropped by "a factor of a hundred".

Some radioactivity remains but the company says removing that would be both hugely expensive and complex. There is one chemical dissolved in the water that cannot easily be removed - it is so inert there is no way that yet exists to get rid of it.

Long-term problems

Then there is the problem of nuclear waste - the material left behind after reprocessing has taken place. Where it comes from and where to put it are keys to the future of the industry.

[ image: High level waste produced in reprocessing can remain radioactive for 250,000 years]
High level waste produced in reprocessing can remain radioactive for 250,000 years
High-level nuclear has to be kept isolated from humanity for at 250,000 years, which is more than 20 times longer than the entire history of civilisation, from the time the first plough was put to the ground.

That is a time-span of geological proportions and no-one has yet come up with a viable means of storing such dangerous material on a permanent basis.

No political problem facing government has quite such long-term implications.

After 45 years of discharges from Sellafield, radioactivity has built up in the Irish Sea. Whilst today's discharges may be lower than ever, they continue to accumulate.

Scientists and environmentalists continue to debate whether the levels of radioactivity are harmful to human health. But politically they are a major threat to the health of the nuclear reprocessing industry itself.

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