A BBC Panorama investigation has raised a series of serious safety concerns about Sellafield from understaffing and storage of waste in plastic bottles to aged infrastructure.
The opening credits of last night’s (5 September) investigation described the facility as a “ticking clock” and issued a warning from a whistleblower that a fire could “generate a plume of radiological waste that will go across Western Europe”.
In response, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority and Sellafield Ltd have issued a joint statement saying there is no doubt that the site is safe and the BBC’s treatment of the concerns raised was “disappointing”.
As well as an interview with an unnamed whistleblower, the programme featured interviews with senior staff from Nuclear Management Partners, the Aecom-Amec-Areva team that was delivering the clean-up of nuclear waste at Sellafield before it was stripped of its £9bn contract by the government last year, amid cost concerns from the Public Accounts Committee and the National Audit Office.
Panorama said that between 2012 and 2013 minimum staffing levels were regularly breached, including one month where they were breached 19 times. Now, it said, they are breached around once a week. However, Sellafield head of nuclear safety Rex Strong said in response that there was always enough staff to ensure safe operations at all times and area were shut down if there was insufficient staff.
The investigation also revealed that there were still more than 2,000 plastic bottles on site storing radioactive plutonium and uranium, and some of these bottles are degrading. Sellafield said it had an operation in place to put the material into proper storage and it was “putting-right” under investments of the past.
Other concerns raised by the Panorama programme were staff resetting alarms without investigating the cause every time, which Sellafield said were software alarms, not alarms for the actual plant. The programme also raised concerns about run down hard infrastructure such as pipes, ponds, silos and bridges, some of which had been built in the 1960s and 1970s, and had reportedly not been properly maintained over the years. Sellafield said it constantly monitors the infrastructure, including cracks in concrete.
Interviews with Nuclear Management Partners staff outlined how dated the facility was when it took over in 2008, with director David Pethick describing the infrastructure as “very poor”. Former deputy managing director Doug Cooper said the site was “far behind best practice” and former decommissioning chief Jack DeVine described improving safety at the site as a “race against the clock”.
The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority and Sellafield Ltd issued a joint statement in response to the Panorama broadcast.
It said: “Sellafield is safe, there is no question about that. Maintaining safety is the priority at Sellafield. Employees work around the clock every day to ensure that the site is safe today, tomorrow and in the future.
“It is disappointing that despite giving BBC Panorama access to Sellafield and spending a significant amount of time explaining complex issues, the programme painted a negative picture of safety that we do not recognise.
“Sellafield Ltd rightly operates in one of the most regulated industries in the world and current safety performance is excellent and improving and the workers are making great progress in cleaning up Europe’s most complex nuclear site on behalf of the UK taxpayer.”