UK pressured to cut Sellafield radioactivity

Nordic countries seek to influence government decision on technetium discharges

Nordic countries are seeking to influence the UK government as it prepares to rule on a draft discharge licence governing emissions of the radioactive isotope technetium-99 from the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing plant. Nordic environment ministers wrote to UK environment minister Michael Meacher in December urging action. The letter's existence has just come to light.

In October, the Environment Agency of England and Wales proposed that British Nuclear Fuels, which operates Sellafield, should be allowed to emit 90TBq of technetium per year rather than the current legal maximum of 200TBq (ENDS Daily 26 October 1998). Nordic governments would like far lower emissions still to be permitted, having been alarmed by the discovery of trace levels of technetium far north of the UK (ENDS Daily 8 January 1998).

UK environment minister Michael Meacher is expected to rule on the draft discharge consent within the next few weeks, and faces a dilemma. Political opposition to technetium emissions from neighbouring countries is strong, but the government is also under pressure from the national Health and Safety Executive, which wants the activity that produces the isotope to be continued.

Sellafield began emitting significant quantities of technetium in 1994, when work began to treat a large backlog of liquid waste from Britain's Magnox family of nuclear reactors. The rods are stored in ageing tanks, which the Health and Safety Executive deems to be unsafe.

Nordic environment ministers first expressed their concern over the spread of technetium contamination last February (ENDS Daily 27 February 1998). Four months later, the UK signed up to an international agreement aiming to cease all discharges of hazardous substances by 2020.

In their December letter, Nordic ministers noted this participation "with satisfaction" and hoped that the British government would place "further restrictions" on Sellafield's discharge authorisation over and above the levels proposed by the Environment Agency.

The liquid waste at the root of the problem should continue to be stored for another five to six years, the ministers have urged. This is the time estimated by British Nuclear Fuels to be necessary to develop new techniques to treat the waste without having to discharge large quantities of technetium-99.

"We are worried that pollution from Sellafield will taint the public perception of Nordic sea food products," the ministers say, and "we urge the UK governments to stop discharges of technetium-99 until better abatement techniques can be used".

Follow Up:
Nordic Council, tel: +45 33 96 02 00;

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