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Graphite – deadly dirt or dusty diamonds?

Blackwater Against New Nuclear Group , 8 Mar 23, BANNG’s Coordinator Peter Banks exposes the hidden danger lurking on the Blackwater in the March 2023 column for Regional Life.

On the Southern shore of the Blackwater Estuary the shiny, grey/blue reactor buildings of the former Bradwell nuclear power station are now a landmark visible for many miles. The power station ceased operating in 2002 and now, in a state of ‘care and maintenance’, remains a visible monument to the early nuclear age.

Contained within the Bradwell buildings (and within all but one of the UK’s civil nuclear power stations) are blocks of graphite forming the very heart of the reactors, called the ‘core’. Once the reactor goes critical the graphite becomes impregnated (technically ‘irradiated’) with a range of radioactive isotopes such that it will remain dangerously contaminated for decades.

Back in the 1960s when Bradwell was commissioned, little forethought was given to the future when these behemoth plants would be taken out of service and decommissioned. The irradiated graphite was far too dangerous for humans to remove as stations were being demolished. Furthermore, the blocks were highly inaccessible as they were at the core of the sealed reactor vessel.

And the reactor chamber metalwork itself had also been irradiated. Recently the process of dismantling was given the new, self-explanatory name of ‘deferred decommissioning’ by the Nuclear Decommissioning Agency (NDA). Whilst this is totally understandable from a health and safety perspective, it does mean that the promises made when Bradwell closed in 2002 that the site would soon be cleared and returned to unrestricted land use were ridiculous.

And diamonds? If the graphite had also been subjected to great pressure as well as heat it would have converted to, amazingly, diamonds! But never think of the contents as precious diamonds, they are actually nasty radioactive wastes – a deadly dirt indeed.

Regardless, irradiated graphite and diamonds both need to be robustly protected. Therefore, expect to see the shiny reactor buildings of Bradwell for at least another 60 years. And, with nowhere else to go, they could remain on our shores into the unknown future.


March 12, 2023 - Posted by | UK, wastes

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