Regulators clash on Irish Sea radioactivity

Embarrassment for UK government as internal differences on Sellafield revealed

The operator of the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing complex in north-west England could face huge new costs to reduce radioactivity in the Irish Sea, reveals the latest issue of the monthly environmental journal, The ENDS Report.

British regulatory agencies have disagreed over how to deal with discharges of the radioactive isotope technetium-99. The Environment Agency for England and Wales is receiving conflicting advice from other official bodies on how to deal with the problem, while the Irish government continues to demand radical action.

Technetium-99 has been discharged in significant quantities from Sellafield since 1994, when British Nuclear Fuels commissioned a new plant to treat stockpiled and continuing arisings of wastes from magnox fuel reprocessing.

Last November, The ENDS Report unearthed a little-publicised study showing rapidly increasing technetium-99 contamination of sea life in the Irish Sea. Lobsters living close to the Sellafield complex were found to have 17,000 TBq per kilogram of body weight - thirteen times the EU safety threshold for food following a nuclear accident. The Irish government expressed "serious concern" at the rising contamination; in January, energy minister Emmet Stagg wrote to UK ministers to demand an "immediate and complete cessation" of technetium-99 discharges.

The latest issue of the journal reveals disagreements between UK regulatory agencies over how to respond to the problem.

In December, the company asked the Environment Agency, which has responsibility for environmental enforcement in England and Wales, for permission to reduce its annual limit for technetium-99 discharges from the current 200 TBq to 150 TBq.

In a submission to the agency, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Foods has called for tougher action. It says that a lower limit of 100 TBq should be economically feasible and that 75 TBq might be practical. It is urging the agency to require British Nuclear Fuels to build a new treatment plant to reduce technetium-99 discharges.

But the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate, which is responsible for site safety, has warned against setting the discharge limit too low. The inspectorate is worried that tight technetium-99 discharge controls could leave some wastes untreated until 2030, increasing the potential for radioactive pollution on the Sellafield site. Discharge controls, it has told the Environment Agency, "should not be allowed to jeopardise the timely treatment of" the relevant wastes.

Follow Up:
ENDS Report 264, January 1997, pp.5-6. Contacts: British Nuclear Fuels, tel: +44 1925 832 146; Environment Agency tel: +44 1454 624 400. Notes: TBq = terabecquerels.

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