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The BBC's Robert Piggott
"The plant lacked an adequate safety culture"
 real 28k

Sunday, 26 March, 2000, 13:51 GMT 14:51 UK
Sellafield fights for its future
Sellafield: Controversial site from the start
The beleaguered Sellafield nuclear plant, which has been hit by a number of scandals in recent months, has always had a poor public image.

It has long been termed as "the nuclear dustbin of the world" by environmental campaigners and now new worries over safety and sabotage highlight that the Cumbrian plant is as controversial as ever.

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.

The plant provides a much needed source of local employment
The plant provides 10,000 jobs
But now Sellafield is fighting for its future after Japan, Germany and Switzerland all stopped sending nuclear material because of the safety concerns raised in a Nuclear Installations Inspectorate report.

A number of Scandinavian countries and Ireland are attempting to suspend work at Sellafield under an anti-pollution treaty.

They are calling for nuclear reprocessing to be suspended, claiming the discharge of tiny traces of radioactivity, which are pumped out from a waste pipe, can be detected in seaweed and shellfish as far away as Norway.

Fierce safety debates

Controversy surrounding Sellafied is not recent. In fact, its whole history has been the subject of fierce safety debates.

Sellafield facts
One of the world's two principal recycling plants
Recycles used fuel from nuclear power stations
Site of Britain's worst nuclear accident in 1957
10,000 people work there
Production of Mox, (nuclear fuel pellets), is a major new business for the site
High-level nuclear waste has to be isolated for at 250,000 years
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 around 10,000 in an area of Cumbria where there are few other employment alternatives and its closure would be a severe blow.

But it also discharges radioactivity into the Irish Sea and environmental campaigners do not believe it has a future.

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

On arrival, the fuel is put into large storage ponds and before being dissolved in acid after a cooling down period. The useful chemicals are then reclaimed and the radioactive waste is stored.

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

'Harmful' shellfish

During the 1970s, that water was heavily contaminated and radioactivity began to accumulate in shellfish and seaweed that was potentially harmful to people who ate them.

Since then, 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.

But Scandinavian countries and Ireland still want Sellafield closed down.

High level waste produced in reprocessing can remain radioactive for 250,000 years
High level waste: Radioactive for 250,000 years
There is also the problem of high-level nuclear waste - the material left behind after reprocessing has taken place.

High-level nuclear waste has to be kept isolated from humanity for at least 250,000 years, which is more than 20 times longer than the entire history of civilisation.

No-one has yet to come up with a viable means of storing such dangerous material on a permanent basis.

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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06 Oct 99 | The Company File
Nuclear workers sacked for fake checks
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