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Sellafield: UUP MLA demands answers over nuclear accident fears exposed by whistleblower in Panorama investigation

By Gary Fennelly and PA

Published 06/09/2016

Liquid containing plutonium and uranium has been stored in thousands of plastic bottles for years, investigation finds
Liquid containing plutonium and uranium has been stored in thousands of plastic bottles for years, investigation finds

Ulster Unionist MLA Harold McKee has called on the Sellafield Nuclear reprocessing plant to respond to claims made by the BBC Panorama programme, in order to restore public confidence.

The BBC said the investigation was prompted by a former senior manager turned whistleblower who was worried about conditions at the site in Cumbria.

It is alleged that parts of the nuclear facility regularly have too few staff to operate safely and that radioactive plutonium and uranium have been stored in plastic bottles.

The South Down MLA said: "As someone who was born and bred in South Down, I am well aware of the relative proximity of Sellafield nuclear reprocessing plant, which is sited literally just across the Irish Sea.

"Last night’s BBC Panorama programme raised a number of issues regarding safety at Sellafield, and like me, many viewers will have been concerned at the claims that were made.  

"It is obviously extremely important that facilities exist to deal with Nuclear waste, and it is vital that the public have complete confidence that this is carried out to the highest safety standards.

"Sellafield must respond urgently to the claims that were made on BBC, and as someone who was elected to represent the people of South Down, I will be seeking answers urgently, in a bid to find out exactly what the situation is."

The company which runs Sellafield has said the site is safe and has been improved with significant investment in recent years, the BBC reported.

The whistleblower is reported to have told the programme his biggest fear was a fire in one of the nuclear waste silos or one of the processing plants.

He told the programme: "If there is a fire there it could generate a plume of radiological waste that will go across Western Europe."

Further allegations in the programme relate to staffing, with the whistleblower saying Sellafield often did not have enough people on duty to meet minimum safety levels.

Responding to the BBC, the head of nuclear safety at Sellafield Dr Rex Strong denied that operating below these levels was dangerous.

He said: "You make alternative arrangements, so the things that have to be done get done. Facilities are shut down if we're not able to operate them in the way that we want to.

Concerns have been raised about safety at Sellafield
Concerns have been raised about safety at Sellafield

"Safety is our priority, and we are managing a very complex site which has got a great deal of hazardous radioactive materials on it."

'Needlessly reckless to place a nuclear waste processing site on a geological fault line'

SDLP South Down MP Margaret Ritchie said: "Panorama has done vital work in exposing the safety failures at Sellafield, including staff shortages and the storing of radioactive materials in ‘degrading plastic bottles.’ I pay tribute to both the documentary makers and the whistle blowers who have exposed these dangers.

"However, the risks exposed by Panorama are only the latest in a litany of hazards that have been clear since Sellafield was established as a nuclear waste processing site.

"It has always been needlessly reckless to place a nuclear waste processing site on a geological fault line, and the indiscriminate discharge of radioactive material into the waters of the Irish Sea has damaged delicate marine ecosystems. That is why I and the SDLP have consistently opposed the transportation of nuclear waste to Sellafield by air, sea or land.

"In light of these most recent revelations, we must see an acceleration of the nuclear decommissioning process and the establishment of secure, long-term containment strategy for the existing nuclear waste sitting in Sellafield.

"The Government must also learn from these hazards and avoid worsening the situation with new nuclear developments at Moorside and Hinkley Point C. Nuclear waste is a toxic burden that lasts for generations and cannot ever be part of a truly sustainable electric grid."

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Sellafield said in a statement given to the BBC that plutonium and uranium samples are "kept securely" and that "to imply that such material is inappropriately managed is simply not true."

Shadow energy secretary Barry Gardiner said: "These revelations about the safety practices at Sellafield must be addressed in detail immediately by the Secretary of State. It is simply unacceptable to breach safe staffing levels.

"This puts the public at an unacceptable level of risk. Sellafield has been heavily criticised by the National Audit Office for its spiralling costs. Shockingly it appears that despite the vast amounts of public money spent there, its safety record is severely lacking.

"It's deeply worrying that these breaches in safety have only come to light from an industry insider. The safety of our nuclear industry should not have to rely on whistleblowers. The Tory Government needs to answer why the inspection regime failed to pick up on this catalogue of failures.

"The Government must carry out a thorough investigation into the safety practices at Sellafield. It must be able to ensure that the public is not being put in danger."

BBC Panorama: Sellafield's Nuclear Safety Failings was broadcast on Monday night on BBC1 and is now available on iPlayer

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