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Operation Sellafield: inside Britain’s deadliest clean-up job

  Few people ever enter the storage silo at Cumbria’s nuclear facility. David
Collins goes behind the scenes to see how engineers are disposing of waste
six times more radioactive than the Chernobyl explosion. Plus, take our
exclusive video tour.

Liz Truss, picking up where her predecessor Boris
Johnson left off, wants to expand Britain’s nuclear industry to tackle
the energy crisis, increasing capacity from 7GW to 24GW by 2050, providing
power to about a quarter of homes.

The Sellafield project I have come to see is a reminder that the nuclear solution can leave a very long-term legacy of logistical problems. Mistakes have been made in Britain’s
nuclear past; the Sellafield clean-up may provide reassurance that we have
learnt from them.

Britain’s first nuclear power station, Calder Hall,
went online here in 1956, powered by a Magnox nuclear reactor. It was
switched off in 2003. Sellafield may be best known to some as the scene of
the Windscale fire, one of the world’s worst nuclear disasters, which
raged for three days in October 1957.

Milk from cows for 200 square miles
was contaminated and 260 people developed cancer, with 32 dying as a
result.

No power for the national grid or weapons material is produced at
Sellafield today, its role now perhaps less glamorous but essential: making
nuclear waste safe. This waste includes the leftovers from the four EDF
nuclear power stations at Torness, Heysham, Sizewell and Hartlepool, as
well as radioactive materials from the likes of hospital scanners.

Until 2018, it also dealt with others’ waste: Germany, Spain and the
Netherlands would ship hazardous by-products to Sellafield to be processed
and returned in metal barrels. At one point Sellafield was handling 800
tonnes of foreign waste a year at a lucrative fee of £1 million per tonne.

The Magnox Swarf Storage Silo is essentially a nuclear waste dump, its
contents dating from a time when less thought was given to how the waste
should be handled in the long term. According to a 2020 public accounts
committee report, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, the body
responsible for the clean-up of the country’s nuclear waste, has a
“perpetual” lack of knowledge about the condition of the UK’s nuclear
sites due to Cold War-era mismanagement.

Accurate records were simply not kept. “I wouldn’t judge the future on the history of the past,” says
Halliwell. “I don’t condone what’s gone on previously. But if we
demonstrate we can manage these materials successfully, we can offer some
confidence to an expanded nuclear industry, because I fully believe, given
some of the problems we are experiencing at the moment, that we need a
buoyant nuclear industry for electricity generation.”

The government wants to build more reactors — mostly Small Modular Reactors, or SMRs.
These are basically mini nuclear power stations, with reactors capable of
generating about one third of the capacity of a traditional nuclear power
reactor. Rolls-Royce is developing a type of SMR with help from government
funding. It believes they are clean, low-cost and easier to set up than a
traditional nuclear plant. Sellafield is bidding to build one of the
new-generation mini reactors on its own site, continuing its legacy of
being at the forefront of Britain’s nuclear history.

 Times 24th Sept 2022

https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/operation-sellafield-inside-britains-deadliest-clean-up-job-lsslz3cdm

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September 26, 2022 - Posted by | UK, wastes

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