Radioactive Leak Shuts Down UK Nuclear Reprocessing Plant

LONDON, UK, May 11, 2005 (ENS) - Members of the European Parliament are demanding that the United Kingdom government launch an immediate independent inquiry into the situation at the UK's Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant (THORP) facility at Sellafield in Cumbria. The nuclear fuel reprocessing facility was closed down April 20 following a leak of radioactive fuel.

About 20 metric tons of plutonium and uranium fuel dissolved in nitric acid leaked from a cracked pipe into an enormous secondary container that is too radioactive for workers to enter. Officials say specialized robots may have to be built to clean up the spill.

Plant managers maintain that no radioactive material has escaped into the environment, although the exact details of the incident remain closely guarded. The European Commission has not received any information about the circumstances of the leak.

reprocessing plant

The THORP nuclear reprocessing plant in northwest England (Photo courtesy University of Bristol)
Green MEP Dr. Caroline Lucas said the accident highlights the daily health, security and environmental risks of the nuclear power industry. “The reprocessing of spent fuel is just one aspect of an industry that is dangerous, dirty and expensive,” said Lucas, who represents South-East England and is a member of the European Parliament’s Environment Committee.

Sir Anthony Cleaver, chairman of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority which took over ownership of the plant from British Nuclear Fuels on April 1, said, “Our first priority is always safety, and we have been reassured that there is no immediate concern on that front."

The THORP facility was transferred to the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority as part of a reorganization of the UK’s £40 billion nuclear waste liabilities. But the European Commission is investigating the transfer under rules governing illegal state aid, and THORP’s future is uncertain.

The facility is designed to separate plutonium from spent nuclear fuel for customers from various countries, though it has been beset by problems and has never functioned at full capacity.

The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority is tasked with cleaning up the UK's nuclear legacy, but the THORP accident has slowed that process because its contribution to the cleanup budget will not be available as long as it is shut down.


Sir Anthony Cleaver is chairman of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority that is responsible for THORP. (Photo courtesy NDA)
“This year’s budget of £2.2 billion is likely to take a hit but it is too early to be absolutely clear by how much and consequently how we will manage the impact and the consequences for the future of the plant," Cleaver said.

About £560m of the budget total was to come from the THORP plant.

Laurence Williams, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority’s director of nuclear safety and security, is an observer on the Board of Inquiry set up by British Nuclear Group to carry out a detailed investigation into the incident.

But that investigation does not satisfy Members of the European Green Party. They want an independent examination of the spill.

German Green MEP Rebecca Harms said, “The European Commission and the UK government must immediately launch an independent inquiry into both the causes and the consequences of the accident. Considering the inherent risks and the absence of any economic future of the plutonium industry, these plants in both the UK and in France should be abandoned.”

The spill casts a shadow of doubt on the Blair government's renewed interest in building nuclear power plants.

The government has always said it is right to “keep the nuclear option open” along with the drive to boost renewable energy sources, the government's chief scientist said Tuesday.

Sir David King was speaking before a two day G8 Energy Research and Innovation Workshop at Oxford University that opens today.

It was reported on Sunday that Environment Secretary Margaret Beckett has been resisting attempts to place new nuclear power stations on the government’s agenda. Backett

UK Environment Secretary Margaret Beckett (Photo courtesy ENB)

On the other hand, some have warned that the UK faces electricity and gas shortages, leading to steep price increases, unless action is taken to replace the UK's aging nuclear plants.

Lucas said, “Tony Blair has raised the spectre of building new nuclear power stations as a way of meeting the UK’s international legal obligations to reduce CO2 emissions. Not only is this misguided - as this accident has amply demonstrated - it is based on a fallacious assumption that nuclear energy is carbon free."

“The reality is that over its full life cycle a nuclear power plant is responsible for significant CO2 emissions," said Lucas.

"If he is serious about safely reducing greenhouse gas emissions, Tony Blair must abandon the dirty and dangerous nuclear power industry in favor of renewable sources such as wind, wave and solar power - and invest heavily in energy conservation measures,” she said.

“This incident has served to close the plant for the foreseeable future - the government must take the next step and keep it closed for good," said Lucas. "The government shouldn’t even be talking about commissioning new nuclear plants while we remain stuck with the mess of the last 50 years,” she said.

"The deadly by-products of the nuclear energy industry must in no way be used as a raw material for new industrial processes," said Lucas.

A decision on whether or not to build a new generation of nuclear power plants is among the most controversial which Prime Minister Tony Blair faces at the start of his third term.