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Last Updated: Wednesday, 7 March 2007, 07:00 GMT
NI's nuclear quandary
By Mike McKimm
Investigations correspondent, BBC Northern Ireland

Mention nuclear power in Northern Ireland and you will be drowned out by cries of "close Sellafield".

Sellafield is one of a number of sites along the Irish Sea

It is as if Sellafield is the only nuclear facility on the other side of the Irish Sea.

In fact, the west coast of Scotland and England has the most intensive nuclear industry of any part of the UK.

But it's a fact realised by very few people in Northern Ireland.

And they may soon be hearing news that they will not like.

The government is about to reveal its White Paper on energy, which may well recommend that more nuclear power stations be built.

Some of those could well be along the Irish Sea.

Decommissioned danger

Already a long coastal nuclear arc sweeps south from Scotland, through Cumbria as far as Wales.

Along it sit seven nuclear power stations, major reprocessing plants, the UK's only low-level nuclear waste dump and three former Ministry of Defence test sites for radioactive weaponry.

Tony Blair
Tony Blair has been petitioned by nuclear workers

Several of the nuclear power plants are now being decommissioned. Ironically this is when such plants are at their greatest risk.

Radioactive materials and cores, normally contained deep within a protected area, are being moved - and there is a real risk of exposure to the open air.

All the stations still operating are near the end of their designed life.

Some are showing clear signs of age with suspected cracked cores and possible fractured pipes deep within their systems. And they all sit along the shores of the Irish Sea.

Underground vaults

As nuclear plants are decommissioned, all the bits that are considered to be relatively low-risk are carted off to a huge nuclear waste dump at a place called Drigg, a few miles south of Sellafield in Cumbria.

The material is either stored above ground in containers or buried in concrete underground vaults.

The nuclear industry in north-west England probably supports up to 30,000 jobs

Soon Drigg will reach a million tons of waste with room for lots more.

But just a few hundreds of yards away, waves from the Irish Sea are slowly eroding the land and closing the gap between the sea and the waste.

It's now accepted that in due course the sea will overwhelm Drigg. A point not widely known in Northern Ireland.

Little or nothing is ever said in Northern Ireland about the tons of depleted uranium shells fired into the Irish Sea for many years.

Thousands of shells were tested up to 1998 and then left lying on the sea bed near Stranraer and Kirkcudbright. It's considered too dangerous to try and recover them.

Job petitions

The nuclear industry is a substantial employer. It offers well paid jobs in rural locations where a reasonable economy would otherwise be unsustainable.

Nuclear fuel
Plants can become dangerous when they are decommissioned

As nuclear power stations reach the end of their life and are decommissioned, these jobs come under threat.

With most of the processes in Sellafield being run down, many of the 10,000 people employed there will no longer be required.

The nuclear industry in north-west England probably supports up to 30,000 jobs in total, directly and indirectly.

That is why a petition from thousands of Cumbrian people was recently sent to 10 Downing Street and Tony Blair calling for any new nuclear power stations to be built in the area.

It's been supported by the local MP and the main trade union.

It's as much about their future as it is about UK energy requirements.

It's also one of the points overlooked by people in Northern Ireland who just see Sellafield as the nuclear bete noire across the Irish Sea.

Mike McKimm reports on the nuclear quandary

Bosses slammed over nuclear leak
24 Feb 07 |  Cumbria
No nuclear stations for NI: Hain
11 Jul 06 |  Northern Ireland

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