Irish politicians have expressed concerns about safety following a BBC investigation into the state of affairs at the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing site in Cumbria.
Panorama reported that radioactive materials have been stored in degrading plastic bottles at the plant, which lies on the coast of the Irish Sea. It also suggested that parts of the site have been operating with too few staff, while one whistle-blower said his “biggest fear” was a fire could lead to a “plume of radioactive waste that will go across Western Europe”.
Sellafield is just 170km away from Ireland.
Fine Gael Louth TD, Fergus O’Dowd, described the claims as “frightening” and Declan Breathnach of Fianna Fail called it “a disaster waiting to happen”.
Bosses at the plant insist that it is operating safely and that there breaches of minimum manning levels are occurring at an average of once a week. Dr Rex Strong, the head of nuclear safety at Sellafield, denied that operating below these levels was dangerous.
And Nick Hurd, Minister of State at the department of business, energy and industrial strategy, responded to the controversial broadcast by declaring that there is “no safety risk” at the plant.
“There is no safety risk to site staff or the public – and it is wrong to suggest otherwise,” he said. “Ensuring high standards of nuclear safety will always be a top priority for this government.”
He added that Sellafield boasts an “impressive” safety record and that the Office for Nuclear Regulations and its team of 50 inspectors is “satisfied it is safe”.
The BBC One show – Sellafield’s Safety Failings – was broadcast on 5 September and featured an interview with the aforementioned whistleblower as well as details from thousands of leaked documents. It led to a strong reaction from a number of government officials in both Ireland and the UK, with Copeland MP Jamie Reed securing speaking time in parliament to post an “urgent question” about the safety measures at the site.
Mr Reed, who used to work at the plant, said that it has a clear impact on the local community and that safety is “non-negotiable”.
“The challenges arising at Sellafield have occurred over decades and it will take decades to remediate the site. Progress is being made, but there is much more to do,” he said. “I welcome the interest in Sellafield that Panorama has generated and I hope this leads to a better understanding of the complex issues being faced.”
Ireland’s Minister for the Environment, Denis Naughten, met with senior officials who sit on the UK-Ireland Group on Radiological Matters to discuss the issue. He told his officials to contact their British counterparts as quickly as possible, with a full UK-Ireland Group meeting scheduled.
Mr Naughten requested a detailed report on the incidents referred to in the Panorama programme ahead of this meeting. A spokeswoman for the Environment Department confirmed that Irish technical experts had visited the plant in April last year.
“Sellafield is an ongoing concern for Minister Denis Naughten and the Irish government,” she added.