Health and safety watchdog admits firms and hospitals have mislaid dangerous substances that could be used by terrorists
Radioactive materials have gone missing from businesses, hospitals and even schools more than 30 times over the last decade, a freedom of information request to the UK’s health and safety authorities has revealed.
Nuclear experts have warned that some of the lost material could be used by terrorists and said there should be a crackdown by the regulators to ensure such “carelessness” is brought to a speedy halt.
Among the big names that have lost potentially dangerous materials are Rolls-Royce at a site in Derby, the Sellafield nuclear plant in Cumbria and the Royal Free hospital in London. Some organisations have been prosecuted but others have got away with little more than a warning notice, papers released by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) reveal.
Missing items include a 13kg ball of depleted uranium from the Sheffield Forgemasters steel operation in 2008, plus small pellets of extremely radioactive ytterbium-169 from Rolls-Royce Marine Operations.
The Royal Free hospital lost caesium-137 – used in cancer treatment – which a report into the incident accepted had “the potential to cause significant radiation injuries to anyone handling [it] directly or being in the proximity for a short period of time.”
In another case, at the site of the former atomic energy research station at Harwell near Oxford, cobalt-60 was “found in a tube store under a machine during clearance,” according to the HSE.
The oil services firm Schlumberger also “temporarily lost” caesium-137 radioactive materials on a North Sea platform, while Southampton General hospital could not locate an “unsealed source” of iodine-131 in February last year.
John Large, an internationally renowned consultant to the nuclear industry, said it was disturbing that losses of the magnitude detailed were happening so frequently.
“The unacceptable frequency and seriousness of these losses, some with the potential for severe radiological consequences, reflect poorly on the licensees and the HSE regulator, whose duty is to ensure that the licensee is a fit and competent organisation to safeguard such radiological hazardous materials and substances. I cannot understand why it is not considered to be in the public interest to vigorously prosecute all such offenders.
“Clearly these organisations have been careless and wanting in their duty to safeguard and secure these radioactive substances, some of which remain extremely radiologically hazardous for many years – such slack security raises deep concerns about the accessibility of these substances to terrorists and others of malevolent intent.”
The HSE said it always considered all enforcement action against those involved, up to and including prosecution, but its final decision rested on issues including the likelihood of securing a conviction and the public interest. “Prosecutions have been undertaken successfully by HSE in the case of Schlumberger and the Royal Free hospital,” it said in a statement.
By contrast, the universities of York and Warwick received “written advice” and an “improvement notice” respectively over the loss of radioactive materials used for demonstrations in their science departments. Loreto high school in Manchester is being investigated by the HSE over the loss of an americium-241 radioactive source and four small mineral samples.
In February of this year the Sellafield nuclear plant pleaded guilty at Workington magistrates court to sending several bags of radioactive waste to the wrong facility.
The company was prosecuted by the Environment Agency and the Office for Nuclear Regulation after four bags of mixed general waste, such as plastic, paper, tissues, clothing, wood and metal, from normal operations in controlled areas of the site were sent to Lillyhall landfill site in Workington. The bags should have been sent to the Low Level Waste Repository at Drigg, Cumbria, – a specialist facility which treats and stores low-level radioactive waste consignments.
Large, who led the nuclear risk assessment team for the raising of the damaged Russian nuclear submarine Kursk in 2001, said in a number of cases publicised through the FoI disclosure people seemed to have been potentially put in danger. “The licensed use of such radioactive sources requires the licensee to be a fit person and demonstrate competence and each of the sources is accompanied by ‘cradle to grave’ documentation that requires a prearranged and managed storage/disposal route – these safeguards have clearly failed and the workforce and, indeed, members of the public may have been placed at radiological risk.”
He added: “Some of these lost radioactive sources are very persistent, for example the Royal Free hospital’s lost caesium-137 has a radioactive decay half-life of around 30 years, so it remains radio-toxic for at least 10 half-lives or about 300 years, and the unsealed source of iodine-131 lost by Southampton hospital is extremely volatile, easily breathed in and reconcentrated by the thyroid gland, presenting a cancer risk, and certainly not amenable to release into the atmosphere of a public place such as a hospital.”
MPs report comes in same week as court action against Sellafield over illegal dumping of nuclear waste in local landfill
The reputation of the nuclear industry faces further damage this week with the publication of a highly critical report on Monday on the management of the Sellafield plant in Cumbria, days before a court action over the illegal dumping of nuclear waste.
The moves follow Cumbria county council’s refusal last week to pursue plans to build a storage facility for radioactive materials needed, many believe, if Britain is to build new atomic power stations.
The Commons public accounts committee report claims that Nuclear Management Partners (NMP), the private consortium managing Sellafield, has failed to stem rising costs and delays in dealing with waste and the decommissioning of facilities.
Margaret Hodge MP, the committee’s chair, said: “Taxpayers are not getting a good deal from the [Nuclear Decommissioning] Authority [NDA] arrangement with Nuclear Management Partners.
“Last year the consortium was rewarded with £54m in fees despite only two out of 14 major projects being on track.
“It is unclear how long it will take to deal with hazardous radioactive waste at Sellafield or how much it will cost the taxpayer. Of the 14 current major projects, 12 were behind schedule in the last year and five of those were over budget.
“Furthermore, now that Cumbria county council has ruled out West Cumbria as the site of the proposed geological disposal facility, a solution to the problem of long-term storage of the waste is as far away as ever.”
The report, Nuclear Decommissioning Authority: Managing Risk at Sellafield, points out that about £1.6bn is being spent annually at the site, where a variety of hazardous materials – including 82 tonnes of plutonium – are kept.
The total lifetime cost of dealing with this has continued to rise each year and has now reached £67.5bn.
“It is essential that the authority brings a real sense of urgency to its oversight of Sellafield so that the timetable for reducing risk does not slip further and costs do not continue to escalate year on year,” says the report, from which some findings were released last November.
The MPs’ committee is suspicious that the NDA, a public sector body established to oversee the safe dismantling of the UK’s old nuclear power stations and deal with waste, does not have a tight enough rein on NMP – a consortium made up of Amec of Britain, Areva of France and the US firm URS – to properly control costs.
The report urges the NDA to work out how to better transfer more risk of failure to the private sector providers.
The NDA said great progress had been made in what was one of the most complex nuclear sites to decommission.
“Of course, not everything has gone smoothly on such a complex and highly technical programme, and the report has rightly pointed to areas where we and the site need to do better,” it said in a statement.
“We have a programme of improvements in place and continue to work with Sellafield Ltd and NMP to make continued progress across a broad front of safe operations and project delivery.”
Further criticism will be heaped on those managing Sellafield when a court case opens on Thursday that will look into claims the nuclear operator breached environmental permits in 2010 by dumping four bags of radioactive waste in a landfill at nearby Lillyhall without authorisation.
Workington magistrates court, Cumbria, will consider nine charges, although the law has since changed to make it easier for Sellafield to dispose of certain low-level waste materials at Lilyhall.
Management at Sellafield said they did not want to comment before the case, which has been brought by the Environment Agency and the Office for Nuclear Regulation.
The government is currently trying to strike a deal with the French company EDF on a power pricing formula that would convince the company to proceed with new reactors at Hinkley Point in Somerset and elsewhere.
But EDF and other companies interested in building atomic power stations know that any bad publicity around the industry will undermine already-shaky public confidence.
Report finds errors by fire officers during practice exercise could have led to ‘prolonged release of radioactive material off-site’
A damning report by safety experts has revealed that staff at Britain’s most important nuclear site did “not have the level of capability required to respond to nuclear emergencies effectively”.
In response to a freedom of information request, the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR), an arm of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), said errors by senior fire officers in a preparedness exercise at Sellafield “could have led to delays in responding to the nuclear emergency and a prolonged release of radioactive material off-site”.
The criticism is revealed at a critical time for the nuclear industry, which is trying to build public confidence after the crisis at the Fukushima nuclear plant while drawing up plans to construct a new generation of atomic power stations in Britain.
It is also an embarrassment to Nuclear Management Partners, the private sector consortium which runs Sellafield and is part-owned by Areva, the French engineering company that has prepared the design for a proposed reactor at Hinkley Point in Somerset.
The initial report from the ONR led to an improvement notice being issued to the Cumbrian site, ordering it to improve its training and wider preparedness to deal with emergencies.
Two HSE fire specialists had watched a safety exercise in December 2011 which tested the Sellafield fire and rescue service’s ability to search for two people after a fictional accident that led to the spillage of radioactive liquid and an aerial release of radioactivity. Although the exercise presented “simple scenarios under ideal conditions”, the service’s “resources were stretched” and “there were insufficient numbers of firefighters to achieve the objectives”, according to the HSE report.
A spokesman for Sellafield said the successful introduction of an integrated risk management plan (IRMP) had subsequently led to the improvement notice issued in February 2012 being “closed out” by the ONR.
“This IRMP is the first of its kind for Sellafield Ltd and ONR has asked Sellafield Ltd if it would be happy to share it as good practice with other operators. A number of key improvements are being progressed to achieve the implementation of the IRMP, including enhanced training for SF&RS [Sellafield fire and rescues service] firefighters and officers,” he added.
The inspectors found evidence of “significant deficiencies around availability of resources, frequency and quality of training, competency and operational preparedness”.
The report, obtained by the website NuclearSpin, also said that Sellafield had already “identified the need to improve arrangements in this area [but] no effective remedial action was put in place”.
The service is a critical part of Sellafield’s management of nuclear safety and the HSE found it in breach of its licence conditions and the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999.
This is not the first time the plant has been criticised by the HSE. A report in 2010 disclosed a number of safety problems at the site and the HSE ordered the closure for safety reasons of a plant for solidifying highly radioactive liquid waste. The executive also refused to endorse a “lifetime plan” outlining schedules for decommissioning the site over the next 110 years.
Sellafield was also recently under fire from the House of Commons public accounts committee over soaring project costs, large salaries and continuing risks. One committee member, the Great Grimsby MP Austin Mitchell, described Sellafield as “the biggest nuclear slum in Europe”.
Tokyo Electric Power (TKECY.PK) says its cooling system for the spent fuel pool at its crippled Fukushima Daiichi power plant’s No. 4 reactor automatically suspended operation Saturday, and it’s been unable to activate a backup cooling system. Officials say it’s unlikely the temperature will rise rapidly, and no leakage of water with radioactive materials has yet been found. If Tepco can’t cool the pool, the temperature could reach the upper limit of designated safety regulations. 8 comments!
See the rest here: Tokyo Electric Power ([[TKECY.PK]]) says its cooling system for the spent fuel pool at its crippled Fukushima Daiichi power plant’s No. 4 reactor automatically suspended operation Saturday, and it’s been unable to activate a backup cooling system….
Regarding the June 12 Kyodo article “Gunma agrees to help dispose of Iwate quake-tsunami debris”: I’m glad to hear this news. After hearing earlier that many people in a city of my prefecture had voted against accepting quake-tsunami debris, I was afraid that the number of areas willing to receive it would be insufficient.
More regions should accept the debris. There are still only four prefectures that have helped with its disposal, including Gunma Prefecture. Acceptance of the debris is a complex problem because many people fear the risks of exposure to radioactive materials. But if no area accepts the debris, this problem will never be solved.
The rest is here: Disposal of quake-tsunami debris
Groundwater is seeping into the damaged reactor buildings at the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, and Tokyo Electric Power Co. plans to build about a dozen wells to redirect and halve the flow.
Groundwater from precipitation is mixing with highly radioactive cooling water gathering in the reactor buildings, turbine buildings and basements, increasing the volume of tainted water at the complex.
See more here: Land water flooding reactors to be diverted
Chiba’s population is declining for the first time in 66 years as residents in bedroom communities damaged by last March’s liquefaction decide to abandon the prefecture, fed up with authorities’ failure to repair their homes and fearful of radioactive fallout.
Many of the prefecture’s residents are still living in tilted homes, as they can’t afford to fix them themselves and financial support from the central and local governments is minimal.
See the rest here: Liquefaction driving away Chiba residents
Regarding the March 4 Kyodo article “Food must be cleansed, Chernobyl expert warns”: Many Japanese citizens are skeptical about the safety of products suspected of having been [irradiated by substances] released from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant. Many are losing their jobs as demand for these products decreases. This may be one factor related to the increasing suicide rate in the affected regions. An overall imbalance in Japan’s economy — in which the Tohoku area slows while western Japan enjoys a booming economy — can no longer be ignored.
As for the issue of radioactive decontamination, the Japanese government should ask for more assistance from experts on the Chernobyl nuclear accident (1986). To regain the trust of its citizens, the government should disclose more information on how it plans to enforce regulations concerning the cleansing process.
Go here to read the rest: Imbalance in Japan’s economy
A group of about 30 Kanagawa Prefecture residents, including mothers with young children, started a service Monday to measure radiation levels in food.
The group will use devices worth around
The Japan Dairy Industry Association says its 116 member companies have detected no radioactive cesium in self-performed tests on their 131 milk products.
“The safety has been confirmed,” the association said Wednesday. “We would like consumers to feel safe drinking milk.”
Continue reading here: No cesium detected in milk at 116 firms