The leak at the Sellafield nuclear site has been uncovered, which may potentially endanger the safety of the public.
The Guardian has uncovered that Sellafield, the most dangerous nuclear facility in Europe, is experiencing a deteriorating leak from a massive silo containing radioactive waste. This could potentially endanger the public.
The deteriorating state of the building and the presence of cracks in the toxic B30 reservoir have raised safety concerns. This has caused tensions with countries such as the US, Norway, and Ireland, who believe that Sellafield has not effectively addressed these issues.
The leak of radioactive liquid from one of the “highest nuclear hazards in the UK” – a decaying building at the vast Cumbrian site known as the Magnox swarf storage Silo (MSSS) – is likely to continue to 2050. That could have “potentially significant consequences” if it gathers pace, risking contaminating groundwater, according to an official document.
The site has experienced a variety of safety issues, including the development of cracks in the concrete and asphalt layers that cover a large pond filled with nuclear sludge accumulated over many years.
These issues have arisen in Nuclear Leaks, a year-long investigation conducted by Guardian, regarding issues such as cyber hacking, radioactive contamination, and a toxic work environment at a large nuclear waste site.
Sellafield, a sprawling 6 sq km (2 sq mile) site on the Cumbrian coast employing 11,000 people, stores and treats nuclear waste from weapons programmes and nuclear power generation, and is the largest such facility in Europe.
In November 2022, a report was sent to the Sellafield board and obtained by the Guardian. The report expressed significant concerns about a decline in safety measures throughout the site, highlighting the potential danger of multiple failures in areas such as nuclear safety, asbestos handling, and fire standards.
A member of the expert panel who advises the UK government on the health effects of radiation informed the Guardian that the dangers of the Sellafield leak and other chemical leaks have been deliberately ignored.
In 1957, a fire at Windscale, previously known as the site, was the most severe nuclear incident in the history of the UK. In 2001, a report from the EU stated that a potential accident at Sellafield could be more catastrophic than the one in Chernobyl, Ukraine in 1986, which exposed five million Europeans to radiation. Sellafield currently holds a larger amount of radioactive material than Chernobyl.
The report stated that potential occurrences leading to the release of radioactive waste into the atmosphere at the facility included explosions and aerial accidents.
The safety standards of this concern have prompted US officials to issue warnings about the deteriorating infrastructure in diplomatic messages reviewed by the Guardian. Some of their worries include potential leaks from damaged concrete in hazardous pools and a lack of transparency from the UK government regarding problems at the location. The UK and US have had a long-standing partnership in nuclear technology.
Worries over the management of Sellafield have caused friction with the governments of Ireland and Norway.
The Norwegian government is worried that any mishap at the location could result in a release of radioactive particles being carried by winds towards Norway, which could have severe effects on the country’s agriculture and wildlife. A high-ranking Norwegian representative stated to the Guardian that they feel Oslo should provide financial assistance to ensure the safety of the site, rather than allowing it to operate with limited resources and lack of transparency.
In 2006, the Irish government attempted to address the issue of Sellafield by bringing it before a UN court due to worries about its potential harm to the environment.
Researchers are attempting to calculate the potential danger to the general population caused by the leakage from the MSSS by utilizing ongoing evaluations of radiological exposure and statistical analysis.
The organization Sellafield is attempting to remove nuclear waste from MSSS, a site that has been in operation since the 1960s and is considered one of the most hazardous nuclear facilities in the UK. This process is estimated to take at least 20 years and has been ongoing for over three years.
A June report from the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) stated that Sellafield has deemed the current risk from the leak to be “as low as reasonably practicable”. However, scientists are growing more concerned about the extent of the leak and its potential impact on groundwater pollution. Sellafield maintains that the leak does not pose any additional risk to employees and the general public.
In 2019, Sellafield notified the ONR of a leak in their storage unit. The leak worsened significantly over the following two years, and a recently discovered document shows that 2.3-2.5 cubic metres of radioactive “liquor” have been leaking from the facility on a daily basis. This liquid is a mixture of radioactive magnesium alloy filings and water, resulting from waste cladding that surrounded used Magnox nuclear fuel.
The effects of radiation exposure on health can differ depending on the amount, but may include symptoms like nausea and vomiting, as well as potential long-term consequences such as cardiovascular disease, cataracts, and cancer for individuals exposed to high levels of radiation. Extremely high doses can even be fatal.
Inspectors have stated that calculating the number of cracks present in the silo is not feasible. As a result, they are relying on estimation and simulations based on leaks observed at the facility in order to determine the potential danger to the community and employees at the location.
A team of researchers responsible for overseeing Sellafield and other nuclear facilities has cautioned that the silo requires more thorough monitoring.
Last July, the Committee on Medical Aspects of Radiation in the Environment stated in their public meeting minutes that the leak has remained consistent since October 2020, with an estimated rate of 2.5 million cubic meters per day.
Unfortunately, the amount of radioactive substance that was released onto the ground during the leak was not disclosed in the meeting notes.
A member of the committee, who is a scientist, shared with the Guardian that it is difficult to determine whether transparency is being overlooked because no one is willing to admit that they do not fully understand the level of danger, which is definitely a cause for concern.
This is extremely concerning considering the context of a website filled with disturbing content and the history of undocumented experiments.
Insiders have cautioned that the fundamental safety standards of the website are becoming increasingly inadequate, with potential long-term hazards being overlooked or left unaddressed.
According to a senior employee at Sellafield, the company is ill-equipped to handle on-site hazards such as fire, asbestos, and the deterioration of nuclear containment materials.
There are serious worries regarding B30, a body of water that holds radioactive waste and is marked as one of the most hazardous industrial structures in Europe.
Described by workers at Sellafield as “Dirty 30”, it contains radioactive sludge from corroded nuclear fuel rods used in old power stations, and its concrete and asphalt skin ribboned with cracks. These cracks have worsened in recent months, according to sources.
Insiders who are knowledgeable about risk assessments reveal that there are over 100 safety issues at the location that are causing significant concern among regulators. Additional worries include fire safety deficiencies, such as malfunctioning alarms in the First Generation Magnox storage ponds (specifically B30), frequent work stoppages due to a shortage of qualified personnel trained in nuclear safety, and a growing number of incidents related to contamination and radiation protection.
The document, dated November 2022, was obtained by the Guardian and authored by Dr. Paul Robson, the former chief nuclear officer responsible for overseeing safety at the site. It highlighted a “cumulative risk” caused by deficiencies in various areas, including nuclear safety and handling of fire and asbestos hazards. The document was sent to Euan Hutton, who was serving as interim site director at the time and has since been appointed as Sellafield’s chief executive.
In a memo from within the company, it was noted that employees responsible for ensuring safety at Sellafield have noticed indications of weakening barriers for nuclear safety, both conventional and environmental.
It was stated that this leads to a decrease in the ability to safeguard workers, the general public, and the environment from major incidents.
The report validates reports from employees, government officials, and diplomats which indicate major safety deficiencies at the location. It indicates that these issues have intensified in the last 10 years, greatly heightening the potential for a major incident at one of the most hazardous nuclear facilities globally. It specifies that there are noteworthy deficiencies in the company’s ability to maintain safety.
Due to the significance of the location in the UK’s nuclear weapons plans and ongoing endeavors to construct and keep up nuclear infrastructure, there have been accusations of attempts to conceal safety issues at Sellafield. These accusations also involve the 1957 fire at the site, which was considered a major nuclear disaster in Europe during that period.
The issue of fire safety at Sellafield is becoming increasingly worrisome for employees and the regulatory body.
The Office of Nuclear Regulation (ONR) issued a warning in their recent assessment of the Sellafield facility, released in March of this year. The report stated that there is evidence suggesting that enhancements need to be made in areas such as conventional safety, fire safety, cybersecurity, and reducing high-risk hazards.
A representative from Sellafield stated: “We take pride in our safety track record at Sellafield and are constantly working towards enhancement.”
“Our website’s purpose dictates that our most dangerous facilities will continue to pose a risk until our mission is accomplished.”
“We regularly monitor and disclose information regarding nuclear, radiological, and conventional safety.”
Employees have the authority to bring up concerns and question situations when they are not deemed appropriate.
“Any incidents, including those highlighted by the Guardian, are reported to our regulator, published on our website, and shared for scrutiny in public meetings.”
A representative from ONR stated that they have been monitoring Sellafield Ltd’s actions in collaboration with the Environment Agency to ensure they are taking all feasible measures to mitigate the effects of the leak.
The priority of both the nation and the ONR is to safely remove the historic waste from the MSSS facility and transfer it to modern storage facilities, a process that will begin in the summer of 2022.