Scandinavia, Ireland and Germany express anger at Sellafield safety lapses

The public image of British Nuclear Fuels' (BNFL) flagship nuclear fuel re-processing facility, at Sellafield, has come under further criticism from the Nordic Council, Ireland and Germany.

Reports published by the UK’s Nuclear Installations Inspectorate (NII) have concluded that instances of falsification of safety data date as far back as 1996 and that management should have identified the problem much earlier than it did (see related story).

The data falsification led to suspension of BNFL’s contract with the Japanese company Kansai Electric (see related story) and this week a German customer, PreussenElektra, announced that it has removed nuclear fuel rods previously in use because of admissions from BNFL that the fuel pellets provided to PreussenElektra were accompanied by forged safety data.

The Nordic Council – the association of Scandinavian governments – has once again told the UK Government that it wants Sellafield closed down, and highlighted the facility’s continued dependence on radioactive emissions to sea as a method of dealing with the wastewater it produces.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on 25 February, Iceland’s Foreign Minister reiterated the Nordic Council’s belief that Sellafield poses a threat to the health of the Irish and North Seas and the Atlantic Ocean. The Foreign Minister expressed his frustration that the UK Government has repeatedly reassured Ireland and Scandinavia that safety is given greatest importance at Sellafield, but that despite such promises the facility’s procedures have been deemed unsafe many times throughout its history.

Throughout, BNFL has maintained that the falsification of data uncovered by its own management and the NII do not prove that the facility has ever produced unsafe material – only that its staff, bored by the routine of manual safety checks of fuel pellets, began to substitute individual manual checks with safety data recorded for other batches.

With the NII reports placing the blame squarely on BNFL management, many are expecting resignations from BNFL’s management team. Meanwhile, the House of Commons Select Committee on Trade and Industry will soon be taking evidence regarding the viability of partial privatisation of BNFL. On 7 March, the Select Committee will hear from the NII and the Environment Agency, and on 21 March it will hear representations from British Energy and the UK Atomic Energy Authority. Finally, in 30 March, it will hear from BNFL itself.

Many commentators have argued that the allegations of a lax safety culture will make it difficult for the Government to go ahead with its plans to partially privatise BNFL.

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