Stabilizing plutonium canisters at Sellafield will cost billions and poses “intolerable risk”

Sellafield nuclear plant is located on the north-west coast of England, close to the village of Seascale in the county of Cumbria. Here more than 70 percent of all radioactive waste generated by UK’s 15 operating nuclear reactors is stored. In addition, at Sellafield used nuclear fuel coming from overseas, mainly from Europe and Japan, is being reprocessed and recycled – about 50,000 tonnes of fuel has been reprocessed on the site to date.

Sellafield is the biggest nuclear complex in UK, which holds the largest stockpile of civil plutonium in the world – that’s about 140 tonnes. To put that into perspective, nuclear weapon requires 5 to 10 kilograms of plutonium to be produced. Plutonium stored at the Sellafield site is currently overseen by the Government’s Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA).

Last week, the National Audit Office has released a report detailing the unstable condition of highly dangerous plutonium canisters at the Sellafield nuclear site, said to be “decaying faster than anticipated”.

The report shows Sellafield, which only opened in 2012, to have ‘unsuitable’ containers for plutonium storage. The NAO has proposed the canisters be repackaged through the new £1.5billion store retreatment plant (SRP) facility, which should be constructed in the next two years. Until SRP is operational, the NDA is recommended to place the unstable canisters in additional layers of packaging. For this purpose, the NDA has announced its decision to pledge £1billion on new packaging canisters.

Dr Doug Parr, chief scientist for Greenpeace UK, said: “In some ways it is fortunate that this failure was detected whilst the plutonium was still accessible, and the cost of patching the canisters is only £1billion. If an inaccessible deep waste dump were to fail in a similar way, who knows what the full cost might be?”

The NDA refused to say how many of the canisters were decaying more quickly “for security reasons”, adding it was a “small proportion” of the total number.

The report said that a leak from any package would lead to an “intolerable” risk as defined by the Office for Nuclear Regulation.

Sellafield is home to four decommissioned nuclear reactors, nuclear fuel reprocessing facilities, and vast amounts of nuclear waste. The total number of buildings at Sellafield is more than 200. All this in a site that covers only six square kilometres. In contrast, the Hanford nuclear waste site in the US has fewer facilities and a smaller nuclear inventory, but covers a footprint 160 times larger.

No wonder then, that Sellafield currently costs the UK taxpayer £2billion a year to run.

In some areas of Sellafield the levels of radiation are so extreme that no humans can ever enter, so all operations there are carried out remotely using robots. The radiation level at Sellafield’s Head End Shear Cave is about 280 sieverts per hour – more than 60 times the deadly dose.

According to recent estimates, the clean-up operation at Sellafield complex will take up to £121billion and is scheduled for completion in 2120.

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