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Monday, 27 March, 2000, 14:56 GMT 15:56 UK
Sellafield: The story so far...

What is it:
Nuclear reprocessing plant on the coast of one of England's most stunning counties, Cumbria, home to the Lake District.

Also known as:
Sellafield is still known by the rather-more sinister-sounding name Windscale by a legion of people who refuse to accept the change in name of the plant which took place in the 1970s. Some environmentalists call it "the nuclear dustbin of the world". British Nuclear Fuels, which runs the plant, prefers to think of it as the place "where science never sleeps".

What it does:
Receives waste from other countries' nuclear power plants, then reprocesses it so that it can be used again. Unfortunately it also produces vast quantities of waste water, and high level nuclear waste which has to be kept far away from humans for 250,000 years - 50 times longer than the history of the written word.

What it also does:
Employs 10,000 in an area where there are few other employers, making calls for its closure a delicate matter. The second biggest employer gives work to just 700 people.

Controversial for:
It's been the centre of controversy for many years. In 1957 a reactor at the site was the scene of Britain's worst nuclear accident. There have been longstanding accusations that the waste water has contaminated the sea life, and a number of Scandanavian countries and Ireland are now trying to force the plant to stop working.

What BNFL says:
The company says it has reduced the level of discharges by a factor of 1,000 over the last 25 years. Levels of radioactive discharges are now "trivial", the company says, and the company is on course to reduce them to "near zero" by 2020.

In trouble for:
Not having a "safety culture", according to the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate which in February said that data on mixed uranium and plutonium oxide (Mox) fuel given to Japan's Kansai Electric had been systematically falsified. Japan, Germany and Switzerland have all stopped sending their nuclear waste to Sellafield because of the worries.

The revelation that a worker at the site has apparently committed sabotage on six machines in the vitrification plant, which turns high-level liquid waste into glass. Unions at the plant have urged their members to shop the saboteur if they know who it is.

So what about the future?
It is not certain - it has been reported that the government has decided the future for Sellafield does not lie in reprocessing, but will instead be restricted to storing waste. The critical report and the sabotage have not helped public confidence in the company, which one commentator - Rob Edwards of the New Scientist - said was up a creek without a paddle and furthermor did not realise it. A spokesman for the company told the BBC that it was a shame that a "major UK company, with a terrific technology base and which provides a terrific amount of employment in West Cumbria is under attack from people who we might think ought to be friends".

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26 Mar 00 | Sci/Tech
Sellafield fights for its future
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