Two major nuclear operators have been fined £2 million ($3.5 million) over incidents involving the spillage of radioactive waste, by the Nuclear Decommission Authority (NDA) - a sum that will be deducted from the fee the quango (a peculiarly British institution) pays to the operators. The United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority was penalised over an incident at Dounreay in Caithness, while Sellafield was similarly brought to task over a radioactive leak at its THORP (Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant) in Cumbria. In September 2005, 266 litres of a spent-fuel solution (presumably in concentrated nitric acid) were spilled onto a floor at the Dounreay cementation plant, where it was to be mixed with cement for storage in 500 litre drums. No one was injured or exposed to radiation by the event, however it is the largest penalty suffered at Dounreay and led to the facility beong closed temporarily.
The Sellafield leak was of a more spectacular volume, and is famously described as being sufficient to half fill an "Olympic Sized Swimming Pool". Here too, no one was harmed by the leak of 20 tonnes of plutonium and uranium dissolved in concentrated nitric acid which had seeped unnoticed from a fractured pipe during a period of nine months, as far as can be judged, and resulted in the THORP facility later being closed for several months. In a separate development, operators of Dounreay could face action over the discovery of radioactive particles on a nearby beach; more than 1,000 in total about the size of a grain of sand. However, this is small beer compared to the ultimate cost of decommissioning Dounreay (an experimental fast breeder reactor establishment), a task to be completed by the year 2033.
Although no one came to any harm, such stories do nothing to reassure the public that Mr Blair's recently heralded commitment to a new nuclear programme is a safe option, even though it may be. Since the THORP leak happened in one of two chambers designed to calculate how much plutonium and uranium is present in nuclear waste, as part of an intention to comply with international treaties on the potential proliferation of nuclear weapons, the release of 20 tonnes or uranium and 160 kg of plutonium is rather embarrassing - perhaps though, there is the silver lining that at least they know how much it does contain now! It is not good PR for nuclear. The result on public image is that the Sellafield nuclear plant is being compared to its cartoon counterpart in Springfield, where Homer Simpson is a hapless safety inspector - "dooooo!".
Interestingly, Britain's first purpose-built nuclear decommissioning training and research centre was opened near Thurso (in the north of Scotland, and not so far from Dounreay) last week, with the intention that it will support the £70 billion programme to clean-up the "electricity too cheap to meter" generation of nuclear power stations. The centre at Janetstown provides facilities where staff can be trained for private industry and to test the type of equipment that will be required to dismantle mothballed nuclear installations. Since this has yet to be accomplished in practice on the full scale, it remains to be seen how this will work in fact and undoubtedly there will be much learned "on the job" when that job is undertaken.