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Friday, October 1, 1999 Published at 17:46 GMT 18:46 UK


Could the UK suffer a nuclear accident?

Sellafield nuclear plant: Could it be a Tokaimura waiting to happen?

Japan's worst nuclear accident raises an important question: "Could it happen here?"

Japan's nuclear crisis
The UK's Nuclear Installation Inspectorate - responsible for monitoring the safety of the country's nuclear power plants, research facilities and military sites - makes reassuring noises that the industry is constantly up-dating equipment and monitoring safety procedures.

No prizes for guessing that these soothing statements are echoed by British Nuclear Fuels, which runs plants like Sellafield in Cumbria and Springfields in Preston.

[ image: Dounreay nuclear plant in Scotland]
Dounreay nuclear plant in Scotland
Environmental group Greenpeace, however, is not convinced.

"We haven't got the same process [as Japan], and there is not going to be the same accident in the same conditions," says Greenpeace scientist Helen Wallace.

"But what can happen again, and will happen again, is a nuclear accident involving human error, which in hindsight everybody asks 'how could this happen?'

"It happened in Chernobyl, it happened in Japan. It will happen again unless we shut down these plants."

The nuclear industry's safety record has been called into doubt, she says. Last month, the Independent newspaper reported that checks at BNFL's Sellafield plant had been falsified.

And tests on plutonium being shipped to Japan from Sellafield showed that one rogue set of safety tests might have allowed imperfect mixed plutonium and uranium oxide pellets through the net.

"As we've now seen in Japan, being blasť in the nuclear industry can cause a major serious accident."

Check and check again

There is enough nuclear material in the UK to cause 1,000 disasters on the scale of that in Tokaimura, Japan, in which workers in a laboratory were attempting to dissolve 16kg of enriched uranium in nitric acid.

[ image: Police in safety suits block roads around the Japanese plant]
Police in safety suits block roads around the Japanese plant
There are more than 20 tonnes of plutonium and large quantities of enriched uranium at Sellafield, Dounreay and other sites dotted about the country.

A BNFL spokesman said the procedure that led to the accident in Japan has not been used in the UK for about 30 years.

"We have a number of safety systems, there's no one common safety feature across all the sites. There are safety back-up systems for safety back-up systems for safety back-up systems."

He doubts the Y2K computer bug will throw any unexpected spanners into the works come midnight, 31 December 1999.

"None of the [safety] systems in the operating plants require computers to operate - they are all manual or mechanical.

"We've had to prove to the Nuclear Installation Inspectorate that everything will operate as it is expected to do.

"While the infrastructure of the buildings - the bricks and mortar - may be decades old, the bits of kit inside have been kept up to date."

Rigorous system

Peter Morgan of the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate says the accident in Japan will make the UK industry take a long hard look at its operations.

[ image: A Japanese boy is tested for radiation]
A Japanese boy is tested for radiation
"Any accident, either in this country or abroad, means it is time for the inspectorate to turn to the industry and say 'can you prove to us that it won't happen here?'

"Today, inspectors will be writing to organisations like BNFL and the military, seeking reassurances."

The nuclear industry is one of the most regulated in the UK, he says.

Organisations have to be licensed by the inspectorate before they begin operations, which are then routinely scrutinised.

"The Nuclear Installations Inspectorate is far more highly resourced, and more intensively resourced than any other in the UK. That's not to say the chief inspector doesn't want more - he does.

"[The industry] is very intensely regulated and they themselves regard it as a strict system - which also means that they can turn around to the public at times like this and say 'we've got a strict system'."

'It could happen here'

Independent nuclear expert Dr John Large says the British nuclear industry has to get over its "holier than thou" attitude.

"The accident in Japan happened because of human error, human fallibility.

"There is no reason to think that this particular plant was substandard. There is no reason to believe that the Japanese nuclear industry is substandard.

"And there is no reason to think the British don't suffer the same shortcomings as any other member of the human race. So of course it could happen here.

"When people ask me where the most dangerous nuclear sites in the world are, I say 'bring me a dartboard'."

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