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BBC documentary highlights Sellafield safety concerns

06 September 2016

A BBC Panorama investigation, aired on September 5, uncovered a catalogue of safety concerns at Sellafield, the UK's most hazardous nuclear site. BBC journalists found that some of the facilities at Sellafield regularly have too few staff to operate safely and that highly radioactive materials have been stored in degrading plastic bottles.

Image: Sellafield Ltd
Image: Sellafield Ltd

The Panorama investigation was prompted by an anonymous whistle-blower, a former senior manager who was worried by conditions at the site.

The whistle-blower told the BBC that areas of Sellafield - which reprocesses and stores nearly all of the UK's nuclear waste - often did not have enough staff on duty to meet minimum safety levels. Figures obtained by Panorama showed that between July 2012 and July 2013, there were 97 incidents where parts of the site had too few workers on shift.

The whistle-blower said his biggest fear was a fire in one of the nuclear waste silos or processing plants on the site and said this could cause a plume of radiological waste across Western Europe.

His other allegations were that alarms were routinely ignored and that parts of the site had old, run-down infrastructure. "I'm worried something terrible will happen there," he said. "I think people should know.”

Panorama also raised concerns about the way radioactive materials have been stored at Sellafield. Liquid containing plutonium and uranium has been kept in thousands of plastic bottles for years. The bottles were only intended for temporary storage and some of them were degrading.

Sellafield has been working to remove them, the programme said, but there were still more than 2,000 bottles containing plutonium and uranium on the site.

Dr Rex Strong, head of nuclear safety at Sellafield, denied that operating below set staffing levels was dangerous. "You make alternative arrangements, so the things that have to be done get done. Facilities are shut down if we're not able to operate them in the way that we want to."

He also told Panorama that Sellafield had been working to get radioactive materials into proper storage: "The organisation is now focusing on putting right some underinvestments of the past in order to support the hazard and waste reduction mission that the site has."

Sellafield later said in a statement that plutonium and uranium samples are "kept securely" and that "to imply that such material is inappropriately managed is simply not true".

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