Monday, 22 August 2011

Visit to Sellafield with John Leech MP

Last wednesday I was delighted to join John Leech MP on a visit to Sellafield. John had been invited to attend by a constituent who works as a contractor at Sellafield to see first hand the Nuclear Industry at work. Both John and myself set off at 6am deeply sceptical about the Nuclear Industry and the Nuclear Power alternative.

The three hour drive from Chorlton to Sellafield was made slightly more bearable by the breathtaking Lake District National Park and winding country lanes, although I’m not sure if John’s taste in music really helped! The drive certainly brought Sellafield’s remoteness into perspective, and the reasons it was built away from large population centres because of the catastrophic nature of any potential problems. On arrival the entrance looked more like a Cold War border crossing than former energy plant; complete with road blocks and substantial security. This brought home to both of us the vulnerability of the site to terrorist attacks and the need to ensure continuous high level security because of the nature of the site. When we eventually met our guides we were given a brief history of the site; and learnt about the site’s secretive origins as a manufacturer of weapons grade uranium. We also learnt more about the Windscale Fire ( and the impact this had on the development of the Nuclear Power industry as well as the problems this has created in the decommissioning of the site. At this point our guides were then able to show us the massive Greenfield site that would be used if permission is given for a new nuclear power station.

We were then taken on a tour of the site. Initially to the viewing deck of the Nuclear Fuel reprocessing plant. The blue-lit pools, radioactive signs, lifts and wenches made it feel like the lair of a James Bond villain! This is was where spent fuel from Sellafield, other Nuclear sites across the country and from abroad are brought in, stored for up to five years and finally recycled. We were impressed to learn that spent fuel is reprocessed to separate the 96% Uranium and 1% plutonium (which can then be reused as fuel) from the 3% radioactive waste, which then has to be stored on site. We also learnt more about how other less hazardous radioactive waste is processed and recycled. What was alarming was how although some of the spent fuel can be reused so much of the waste (which varies from the containers that hold the nuclear fuel to the clothes worn by employees) has to be processed and stored for millennia whilst it remains radioactive.

After this we were taken on a walk around of the site. This involved having to change into overalls, hard hats and put on radiation monitoring badges. Whilst we were changing into our new outfits there were loads of people coming and going amongst the hundreds of lockers and we got an idea of just how many people work on site. Sellafield directly employs 10,000 people so you can see how important it is to the local economy. Once changed we were taken on a tour of the site to see the decommissioning process. It was alarming how little thought had been given in the 1950s and 60s to the decommissioning process and we got to see how complicated it now is. We passed by a building called B30 (informally know as Dirty Thirty) which is one of the most radioactive buildings in Europe. It is the store of spent fuel from the 1960s and 70s, yet because of the way the spent fuel was stored at this time the containers have corroded in the pools and fuel has leaked out into the water. As a result it will take decades to clear up an billions of pounds of public money to make it safe. We were shown how complicated it is to decommission radioactive sites and the need to construct many new buildings to process the debris from the decommissioning process. This also made me realise that despite the Industry’s claims to being ‘green’, the decommissioning process is enormously carbon intensive and ultimately harmful for the environment. After we had changed we had to leave via a full body scan to ensure we weren’t radioactive. At this point I really did worry what they would do to us if we were! Thankfully all was fine and we had only picked up minute traces of radioactivity.

Over lunch afterwards we got a chance to discuss what we had seen and the industry as a whole. Our hosts were very frank and honest and took our criticism very well. They felt that although the decommissioning and storage process is very timely and costly, they have learnt and are learning lessons for the future which will mean that new generation power stations would be cleaner, safer and more efficient. I said I understood what they had said but felt the significant investment a new generation of nuclear powers stations would require would be better spent on finding reliable renewable sources; and that Cumbria was a prime example of a place where the UK with abundant natural energy resources that could be exploited to a much greater level.

On the drive home John and I discussed what we had seen. We came away even more sceptical and concerned than we had arrived. For me the Nuclear Power Industry was an experiment that should not be repeated. The events at Fukushima show just how damaging and unsafe Nuclear Power can be. However my largest objection remains to be the radioactive waste the industry creates and the legacy we are passing onto future generations. I hope the Coalition Government comes to its senses and realises that Nuclear is not the environmental, progressive energy the Conservatives claim it is!

No comments:

Post a Comment