DECOMMISSIONING OF three 2.2km long sea outfalls running from the Sellafield nuclear complex has halted after sections of pipe were found washed up on local beaches.
A search has been launched by Sellafield operator BNFL for over 50 pieces of a heavy duty 220mm diameter plastic pipeline thought to have have washed away from 'stillages' or containers on the seabed.
The plastic 'temporary emergency sea line' was installed in 1986 to take emergency nuclear waste flows. It was never used for this but carried rain and surface water discharge from the site.
BNFL said the outfall was not radioactive although two other steel pipes which took waste from the nuclear complex between the 1950s and 1970s into the Irish Sea are contaminated. They are due to be decommissioned using the same method.
'The temporary [plastic] sealine was intentionally the first sea line [to be] removed in order to test the method, as this line was believed to be free of radioactive contamination, ' said BNFL in a statement.
Specialist contractor Land & Marine, which was involved in raising the sunken Russian nuclear sub Kursk, began work on the outfall in the summer.
As with all nuclear-related work, the project was 'subject to a detailed safety assessment and agreed working method', said BNFL. It was also being monitored by the Environment Agency.
The method envisaged cutting the pipes into 25m sections and moving them onto a 'cutting platform' on the seabed where they were cut down again into 2.5m lengths.
These were then loaded into metal containers called 'stillages' on the seabed, before removal by barge to BNFL's nearby waste dump at Drigg.
The work which went wrong began on 22 November when a 450m length of pipe at the shore end was cut and lifted before being towed out to sea where it was cut into 2.5m sections on a barge and then lowered into stillages.
Three days later BNFL patrol teams found 27 pieces of pipe on the beach. Another 80 were still in the stillage.
A BNFL spokesman said it did not know what had happened or how many had washed away.
'We hope to send divers down as soon as possible, but cannot do so if the sea swell is more than 1m which at this time of year in the Irish Sea is very common, ' he said.
The Environment Agency has ordered a halt to the work, and is investigating.
BNFL has ordered its own inquiry. The Irish government is also raising the incident with the UK government, amid fears that pipe parts could land in Ireland.