Why only a full, independent public inquiry will allay fears about safety at Sellafield
Threat posed to Co Down coast is too great to be fobbed off by worthless official assurances, says Alban Maginness
The BBC's Panorama programme - like BBC Northern Ireland's Spotlight - is at the cutting edge of investigative journalism. And when they produce a programme such as the recent investigation into safety at the Sellafield nuclear site, we should take it seriously.
The programme grimly uncovered a whole series of safety concerns at this nuclear reprocessing facility. In summary, they identified under-staffing that adversely affects the required safety levels for such an operation. They alarmingly disclosed that radioactive materials were stored in plastic bottles, which were themselves subject to degradation. Parts of the facility were also dangerously run-down.
Key to the programme was the disclosure by a whistleblower - a former senior manager at the plant - who was concerned at the conditions that he witnessed.
Principally, his biggest fear was a fire in one of the nuclear waste silos, or one of the processing plants.
Alarmingly, he claimed: "If there is a fire, that could generate a plume of radiological waste that will go across western Europe."
The BBC obtained figures showing that, between 2012 and 2013, there were 97 incidents in which parts of the site had too few workers on shift.
Sellafield itself, in its own documents, stated: "Any deviation from safe minimum manning levels is not acceptable."
Sellafield management contends there are now fewer breaches of safe minimum manning levels, but the latest figures disclose that they are still being breached on average once a week.
The programme astonishingly discovered that liquids containing plutonium and uranium have been stored in thousands of plastic bottles for many years. This was originally intended as a temporary storage measure.
However, at this stage, some of the plastic bottles are starting to degrade, thus posing a serious risk of leakage of these highly dangerous and toxic materials.
They are addressing this ongoing problem, but there are still more than 2,000 bottles remaining at the site. The mind boggles at such an amateurish measure worthy of a dysfunctional ex-Soviet republic.
Astoundingly, Sellafield's management have, in an Orwellian response to these disclosures, stated that the plutonium and uranium bottles (which they call "samples") are kept securely and that, "To imply that such material is inappropriately managed is simply not true".
Perhaps more seriously, Panorama has seen leaked reports that suggest that Sellafield had problems with maintaining the site's infrastructure.
One grim report, from 2012, stated that years of neglect had led to intolerable conditions. Sellafield say, in response, that there has been huge and sustained investment in infrastructure over recent years.
The Sellafield programme has once again highlighted the particular risk posed by this nuclear reprocessing and hazardous waste dump in Cumbria on the west coast of England. It has huge implications for all of us living in Ireland - especially on the east coast of Co Down.
For many years now, the local MP, Margaret Ritchie, has doggedly monitored and highlighted the dangers of Sellafield to all of us living on this side of the Irish Sea.
Arising out of the Panorama programme, she challenged the Government in parliament. However, there was a disappointingly weak response by the newly appointed minister responsible for nuclear decommissioning. He simply denied that the whistleblower's revelations were any reason for the public be concerned - curiously arguing that consistent safety failures were an acceptable management strategy for nuclear waste.
Margaret Ritchie claims that only a fully independent and transparent, judicially appointed inquiry into safety measures at Sellafield can rebuild the public's trust that the Government is capable of handling toxic nuclear waste in a competent way.
Anything less than this can only leave the impression that the Government and the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority are deliberately trying to hide their own failings from public view.
Whether she is correct in that demand remains to be seen, but what is clear is that there has to be more than a simple ministerial denial in the House of Commons. Having created this burdensome nuclear monster, the Government must now do everything it can to protect communities on both sides of the Irish Sea, who are threatened by the potential for a nuclear catastrophe.
We are not the only area at risk and there have been serious complaints made by the Dublin government, the Manx administration and even the Norwegians, who want the facility closed.
The Irish Sea is the most immediate area at risk. Contamination of the sea is a worrying risk. Sellafield remains a real risk to the safety and the good health to the people of Northern Ireland.
Therefore, there needs to be a united effort by the Assembly to challenge the Government on this issue and to bring about a safe and permanent resolution to the constant danger that this facility poses.
Panorama, once again, has acted bravely for the public good.