History of Sellafield

Construction began in 1947. It was known as Windscale until 1988. Placed under the newly-formed United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) in 1954; in 1971 part of this became a separate state-owned company, British Nuclear Fuels Limited (BNFL). The British government has created a Nuclear Decommissioning Authority whereby the Government will look after the £41 billion debts and future decommissioning costs of BNFL and the UKAEA: the remainder of BNFL will be privatised (with the government keeping a 51% share) and will merely have to cover its running costs.


What is at Sellafield?

Two 'Windscale Piles', reactors built in the 1940s to produce plutonium for British nuclear weapons and for the civil nuclear power programme. The first British nuclear bomb, exploded in 1952, used plutonium from Windscale. They were opened in 1951. One of them went on fire in 1957, when 400,000 curies of radioactivity were released to the atmosphere and 2 million litres of milk were dumped. The loss of life was officially estimated in 1982 as 32 and unofficially in 1990 as over 1000. This fire was linked rightly or wrongly to cases of Down's Syndrome in Dundalk. The Pile which went on fire could not be re-opened and the other one was also closed for reasons of safety. They are being gradually dismantled, but this is not expected to be completed before 2050 because of the amount of radioactivity involved.

Four Magnox reactors ('Calder Hall') built to 1950s safety standards, which are much lower than today's. The first, opened in 1956, was claimed as the world's first commercial nuclear power station, but energy for civil use was only a by-product. Until recently they produced plutonium for UK weapons. All are now closed, the last in 2003.

A prototype Advanced Gas-cooled Reactor, opened in 1962 and closed in 1981. It is now being dismantled, but this is not expected to be completed before 2050.

2 encapsulation plants, putting solid and sludge intermediate level wastes into

Site Ion Exchange Plant (SIXEP), a clean-up plant for effluent, installed in 1984.

EARP, a plant for clean-up after reprocessing.

B29: Pool storage for spent nuclear fuel.

B30: An open air pond which is leaking radioactive water. A containment is being built. Pigeons are landing on the pond and carrying radioactive material away. In September 2004 the European Commission decided to take the UK government to the European Court of Justice over safety problems as Euratom inspectors cannot ascertain what is in the pond despite trying for 15 years.

B33: MDF: MOX (mixed oxide) Demonstration Facility originally producing 8 tonnes of MOX fuel per year for Light Water Reactors in Europe and Japan, but now feeding B572 (see below). Opened in 1993. Deliveries were made partly by air and partly by sea. This is the plant for which safety analyses were falsified in 1996-1999, which resulted in Japan deciding to return the fuel supplied.

B38: A silo from which radioactivity leaked some time before 1978.

B204: Head-End plant, reprocessing by chemical means to produce weapons-grade plutonium. It was opened in 1951 and closed in 1964. It was then converted into a plant for dealing with spent nuclear fuel being prepared for reprocessing in the magnox reprocessing plant (see B205) and operated from 1969 to 1972, when it was closed for repairs. When an attempt was made to re-start it in 1973 there was an accident in which 34 men were seriously contaminated with Ruthenium 106, and it never re-opened.

B205: Magnox reprocessing plant opened in 1964. Spent fuel rods from Magnox reactors are cut up, dissolved in acid, and mixed with a solvent which dissolves the uranium and plutonium and leaves other radioactive substances behind to be stored in the HAST (see B215). The uranium and plutonium are recovered from the solvent for use in nuclear reactors: it is claimed that they are no longer used for nuclear weapons. It is planned to shut down the plant in 2012, when all the Magnox nuclear power plants will be closed.

B211: A Medium Active Concentrate storage facility, which the Irish government has suggested could be used to reduce the amount of technetium-99 going into the sea. In June 2003 the British government asked BNFL to cease putting technetium-99 into the sea.

B215: 21 High Activity Storage Tanks (HAST) containing over 1500 cubic metres of radioactive waste (Highly Active Liquor) arising from reprocesssing. Because of radioactivity the waste is self-heating and could boil off if cooling was interrupted for half a day. The waste could escape in liquid or gaseous form.

B277: A building formerly used to make fuel for the Dounreay fast breeder reactor in Scotland. The machinery is to be cut up by robots because it is so radioactive. The job has to be done because the plutonium is decaying into the more dangerous americium.

B355: Vitrification plant opened 1991. Vitrification means mixing radioactive waste with glass-forming materials so that glass is formed containing radioactive waste: this is put in steel containers and stored while the radioactivity dies away. The plant can't keep up with B215, whose contents it is supposed to deal with, because the radiation destroys the machinery.

B570: THORP (Thermal-Oxide Reprocessing Plant) opened 1994 to replace the Head-End plant and reprocess oxide fuel from Advanced Gas-cooled Reactors and Light Water Reactors, producing uranium and plutonium. In the first 5 years of operation, it reprocessed only a quarter of the amount contracted for, and overall has operated at about 50% of capacity, because it can't dispose of dangerous liquid waste fast enough. It closed down for 5-month periods in 1998, 1999 and 2000. It sends Highly Active Liquor waste to B215 and plutonium to B572. It was announced in August 2003 that it would close when existing contracts finished: this is expected to be in 2011. But British Energy, with whom it has the only non-overseas contract, wanted to renegotiate this contract because it is too expensive and they don't want the product: the British government reacted by getting BNFL to reduce its charges. After 2010 THORP is to be converted into a waste handling facility: it is possible that the discharge of radioactive waste into the Irish Sea would continue. In April 2005 a leak was discovered which had been going on since July 2004: this reslted in the closure of the plant and it has not reopened. In 2005 THORP was handed over to the new Nuclear Decommissioning Authority. In 2007 a group of countries (Ireland, Norway, Iceland and Austria) called for an independent international safety review of THORP.

B572: Mixed oxide (MOX) fuel plant (SMP) which opened in 1996 on a test basis producing uranium oxide fuel. Commissioning to produce 120 tonnes of MOX fuel per year commenced on 20th December 2001, the fuel being made from uranium oxide mixed with the plutonium oxide obtained from B570, and suitable for Light Water Reactors: full operation was delayed again in July 2004. Economic viability was to depend on Japanese orders, but these were not secured. Commercial MOX manufacture is expected to end in 2016. The Irish Government assisted the attempt of Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth to oppose this plant at an unsuccessful case in the High Court and Court of Appeal in London, and fought an unsuccessful case against it at the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea in Hamburg, seeking an injunction pending a decision by a Permanent Court of Arbitration tribunal; the case went to this tribunal in June 2003; the tribunal ruled that the UK was obliged to consult Ireland over developments at Sellafield, and was due to make a final ruling on jurisdiction in 2003. This tribunal operates under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. The Irish Government also began a case under the OSPAR Convention (Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic) in June 2001: the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled in June 2003 that it had jurisdiction over the matter, but refused to order the British government to show secret papers to the Irish government. The Government also said it would consider a case in the Court of Justice of the European Communities on the basis of Euratom Directives.

B701: A building from which over 100,000 curies of radioactivity leaked, probably in the 1950s.


What pollution is caused by Sellafield?

Various types of nuclear waste are stored on land, and in the past there has been dumping of nuclear waste at sea. The British government's Committee on Radioactive Waste Management is revising policy in this area and in March 2004 promised to hold meetings in Ireland.

There have been continuous discharges of nuclear waste into the sea. These were at their highest in the mid-1970s.

In 1983 an accident at the Magnox plant resulted in such a discharge of radioactivity into the sea that over 20 kilometres of beaches were closed.

Over a million gallons of radioactive waste are currently put into the Irish Sea each day, mainly from the Magnox reprocessing plant and THORP. Between 250 and 500 kilograms of plutonium from Sellafield is now adsorbed on sediments on the bed of the Irish Sea, but may be taken up into the water or air.

The radioactivity contaminates the Irish Sea and flows northwards, being traceable as far as Spitzbergen, north of Norway.

Radioactive substances are also emitted by air.


What are the dangers of a transport accident related to Sellafield?

BNFL own rail freight wagons and have a large share in 6 nuclear cargo ships. The ships go up and down the Irish Sea: a fire on board a ship could cause the containers of nuclear waste to rupture and the ship to sink, releasing radioactivity into both the atmosphere and the sea. The wagons bring radioactive cargoes from the port of Barrow to the Sellafield plant, and bring fuel from nuclear power stations around Britain to Sellafield.

Information on plutonium shipments is provided by Greenpeace International.


What would the results be of a catastrophe at Sellafield?

A failure of the HAST cooling systems, leading to boiling, or an external impact could cause a rupture.

An article in the New Scientist on 13th October 2001 (subscribers only) estimated that an aeroplane crashing into the B215 structure would release 44 times as much radioactivity as the Chernobyl disaster, and could cause more than 2 million cancers.

A report by WISE energy consultants for the European Parliament on Possible toxic effects from the nuclear reprocessing plants at Sellafield (UK) and Cap de la Hague (France) showed that an aircraft accident could cause up to 1 m. deaths in the long run.

Further details of such an aircraft accident are available from WISE.


What is being done to oppose Sellafield?

Irish CND opposes nuclear power as civil nuclear power cannot be separated from nuclear weapons. Reactor-grade plutonium is used for military purposes as well.

In 1997, four residents of Dundalk, County Louth, Ireland, started a case against British Nuclear Fuels Limited, the operator of Sellafield. The Irish government promised £350,000 in October 1997 to Stop Thorp Alliance Dundalk (STAD), the support and fundraising group for the residents, and for research associated with the case. The four residents are: Ms Constance Short, an artist; Mr Mark Deery, a farmer; Ms Mary Cavanagh, a teacher; and a businessman, Mr Ollan Herr. The government has given money for technical assistance, but no money for the legal assistance that is needed first. The Irish High Court ruled in April 2004 that it did not have jurisdiction in the case against BNFL; an appeal is being considered and the question of whether the Irish State may have responsibility is still open.

News of recent Irish actions on the Sellafield issue are carried by Indymedia.

One of the main organisations campaigning on the Sellafield issue is CORE (Cumbrians Opposed to a Radioactive Environment). Additional information on Sellafield is on the CORE site, and on the site of a project at Sutton Park School.


Back to Irish CND page on Nuclear power and radioactivity