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Sellafield: Nuclear accident fears exposed by whistleblower in Panorama investigation

Safety concerns have been uncovered at UK's most hazardous nuclear disposal site, leading to fears of a nuclear accident.

Radioactive plutonium and uranium have been stored in degrading plastic bottles at the Sellafield site in Cumbria, a Panorama investigation found.

Parts of the site also regularly have too few staff to operate safely. However, Sellafield insists the Cumbria site is safe and has been improved with significant investment in recent years.

A former senior manager worried by conditions at the site told Panorama his biggest fear was a fire in one of the nuclear waste silos or in one of the processing plants.

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

He also said areas of Sellafield, which reprocesses and stores nearly all the the UK's nuclear waste, often didn't have enough staff on duty to meet minimum safety levels.

Minimum staff levels are set for both teams of workers and whole factories and vary across the site. In a processing plant of 60 people, the minimum safe manning level may be just six workers.

Sellafield’s own documents say “any deviation from the safe minimum manning levels is not acceptable”.

However, there were 97 incidents between July 2012 and July 2013 where parts of the site had too few workers on shift, according to figures obtained by Panorama.

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Meg Hillier MP, who chairs the Public Accounts Committee, told the BBC: “It is incredible. It defies belief actually that, that anything could be working at below safe staffing levels. There is no excuse.”

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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Panorama also raised concerns about the way radioactive materials were stored at Sellafield.

Liquid containing plutonium and uranium has been stored in thousands of plastic bottles for years, the programme found. The bottles were only intended as temporary storage and some are degrading.

Sellafield has been working to remove them, but there are still more than two thousand bottles containing plutonium and uranium on the site, the BBC reports.

A spokesperson for the Sellafield Ltd and the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority said:“We haven’t had the advantage of seeing the programme yet. It would therefore be inappropriate to speculate or comment on specifics in advance of its broadcast this evening.

“Safety is our number one priority and Sellafield is safe.  We rightly operate in one of the most regulated industries in the world and current safety performance is excellent and improving.  Our staff work around the clock every day to ensure that the site is safe today, tomorrow and in the future.”

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