Meltdown fears halt Sellafield site demolition

Irish Newspapers - Treacy Hogan, Environment Correspondent

Date: Tue January 15th 02

FEARS that nuclear fuel at the original Sellafield site would
ignite has led to the suspension of a €97m dismantling
plan. The UK Atomic Energy Authority confirmed yesterday the
risky decommissioning programme has been halted over concern that
the fuel would spontaneously catch fire.

The authority confirmed that risks in the reactor core were
behind the decision to halt the project until a safe method is

There was also a risk of a collapse at the plant which contains
vast quantities of uranium and plutonium. The fuel is from the
original Windscale plant, which is now part of the Sellafield

In 1957, Windscale caught fire and produced the world's worst
nuclear accident prior to Chernobyl.

It affected part of Ireland's east coast with claims it led to
increased leukaemia and Down's Syndrome.

The fire sent a plume of radioactive contamination into the
atmosphere, contaminating milk supplies in the process.
Windscale, an old ammunition factory, had been making nuclear
material for the British government's nuclear weapons programme.

Windscale Pile 1, as it is named, is owned by the UK Atomic
Energy Authority, but the Sellafield site - the name was changed
after the disaster - is owned by British Nuclear Fuels.

Since the fire, it has been sealed in case air reached the tonnes
of melted fuel and sparked spontaneous combustion, according to
reports yesterday.

There is known to be a major risk in dismantling such a huge
amount of dangerous unstable radioactive material and such an
exercise has never been previously attempted.

British Nuclear Fuels and Rolls-Royce were jointly awarded the
contract to decommission the Windscale Pile 1 plant in Cumbria,
just 60 miles from the Irish coast. They have spent more than
€32m over the past three years on the project.

But now they have been told to reconsider the project as it may
not be safe.

Andrew Munn, a UK Atomic Energy Authority spokesperson, told the
Irish Independent yesterday that the contract to decommission the
plant and restore the site was signed in 1997.

Problems have arisen in connection with robotic arms used to
dismantle graphite blocks in the core of the reactor. Another
problem has to do with the need for an inert atmosphere in the
reactor core. This would have required large amounts of argon gas
to prevent fire spontaneously breaking out.

Mr Munn said the contractors were carrying out a technical review
to assess what other method could be used to carry out the
dismantling project.

When Windscale caught fire on October 8, 1957, clouds of
radioactivity covered much of Ireland and the UK as it burned for
three days before it was extinguished. As a result, the millions
of gallons of milk which were contaminated with radioactive
iodine had to be poured down drains.

A British newspaper reported yesterday that the true nature of
the disaster was kept from the public.

It also claimed that apart from those injured in fighting the
huge fire, some 100 people would probably have died or would die
eventually of cancer from the radioactivity. The UK Atomic Energy
Authority also confirmed the plutonium and uranium was originally
earmarked for the UK nuclear weapons programme.

It was also reported that decommissioning of the Windscale plant
and other nuclear facilities dating back 50 years will cost more
than euro40m.

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