Transportation of radioactive materials in the UK is safe, survey claims

The transportation of radioactive materials in the UK is safe, according to a survey commissioned by the UK Government's Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR).

The NUKEM survey of radioactive material transport packages claims that contamination on containers transporting radioactive materials, whether by rail, road, sea or air posed no danger to the public.

The review was announced in November 1998, in response to public concern over levels of contamination recorded on irradiated fuel flasks in both Europe and the UK.

Concern has been particularly fierce among residents of the London suburb of Cricklewood, where trains carrying radioactive materials are to be marshalled en route to nuclear installations in the north of the UK.

More than 340 checks were made as part of a study of fuel flasks and the vehicles that transport them. A total of twenty different sites were visited during the survey and in total 342 surveys were made on radioactive transport packages, overpacks and conveyances.

The DETR say the checks revealed that UK nuclear power stations and British Nuclear Fuel’s (BNFL) Sellafield apply “stringent standards of self-regulation, using methods that are often tougher than industry standard regulations.”

Soil samples taken from railway sidings used by trains carrying irradiated fuel flasks were also tested, and showed no detectable evidence of radioactive contamination, the DETR say.

Seventy-seven surveys were made of fuel flasks and flask conveyances. No instances were found where the maximum permissible limits were exceeded.

Potential risks to the public from exposure to contamination levels measured on flasks were also assessed. The report claims potential doses are significantly lower than current statutory dose limits and current international recommendations for dose limits to members of the public.

Ten instances were noted where measurable contamination levels below international limits were identified on fuel flasks. One instance was noted where contamination below international limits was identified on a wagon used to carry flasks.

The phenomenon of ‘sweating’ was demonstrated on between 5% and 15% of fuel flasks. ‘Sweating’ occurs when radioactive material absorbed in the paint migrates to the surface. Figures showed that the levels of radioactive material measured on the surfaces of ‘sweating’ flasks were below the levels set in international regulations.

Ground contamination surveys were carried out at sidings at Dungeness and Willesden used by trains carrying irradiated fuel. Samples were taken of material beneath rail lines used for the transportation of fuel flasks, together with a control sample taken at least 20m distance from these rails. No radioactive activity other than normal background radiation was found in any of the samples, the report says.

However, Friends of the Earth’s nuclear specialist, Dr Dominic Jenkins, pointed out that the report makes no mention of the possibility of rail crashes, which he said could lead to the release of significant levels of radiation to the environment.

Dr Jenkins said that the UK Government has already admitted to occurrences of radioactive contamination to trains over international limits, and said that such contamination could lead to cancer if ingested or inhaled. Dr Jenkins went on to claim that NUKEM, the company responsible for compiling the report, “is not independent.”

Meanwhile, Cricklewood residents continue to pursue their goal of joint monitoring with BNFL of the Willesden sidings. Linda Hayes, leader of the Cricklewood residents’ association, said she doesn’t accept the findings of the report, but accepts that the results of the report will be cited by BNFL when they next meet in June.

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