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The 'Hot' nature created by Sellafield

Since the 1950's Sellafield has pumped a quarter of a tonne of plutonium and a cocktail of other radioactive isotopes out of twin sea discharge pipes into the Irish Sea. Because the radioactive pollution is detectable the pollution can be traced as it flows into the seas around Britain. In April 1997 the Bedford Institute of Oceanography, Nova Scotia found Sellafield radiation had reached the Arctic.

In 1990 a government funded project used helicopters to survey radiation "hot spots" in the area. The map (above) shows the radiation levels are highest (red and brown) around the estuary of the Rivers Esk and Mite and around Sellafield itself. In March 2001 the University of Glasgow REACTORS team at East Kilbride will complete a further helicopter monitoring survey for the DETR.

State-owned British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL) has invested heavily in technology such as its EARP and SIXEP (Site Ion Exchange Plant) to remove as much of the pollution as possible. They have cut discharges of radioactivity by 100 fold since the mid 1970's. But the legacy from earlier, less careful days, mean that silts and sediments are laced with low level contamination.
This contamination enters Irish Sea fish and shellfish. The UK Government's RAWMAC 11th annual report in 1990 warned "there is still some concern about the fate of the larger quantities of radioactivity discharged in the past. "
"The plutonium and americium (decays into plutonium) in the discharges have been found not to disperse but to concentrate in the fine cohesive sediments of the Irish Sea.''
In 1976 an un-noticed leak from a waste silo led to 50,000 curies of radiation seeping out. Media attention was at it peak in 1983 when radioactive ruthenium was allowed out to sea and washed back onto the holiday beaches.Beach contamination was reproted in Feb 23 1984 issue of Whitehaven News. The public were told to stay away from the contaminated beaches and BNFL was stung by a £70,000 court bill for the leak.Monitoring the beach for radioactivity 1984 It was this same beach that in 1992 was the target for a public attack by the rock band U2 with the group's singer Bono teaming up with Greenpeace to protest at the radioactive waste being dumped out to sea. Greenpeace at one stage sent hired divers down to the undersea section of the Sellafield discharge pipelines and succeeded in inserting inflatable bungs which brought reprocessing briefly to a halt. The most recent instances of the effects of the pollution have been that in 1997 technetium (a dangerous radioactive isotope) were found to be exceeding EEC safe intervention level in lobsters.
And a bizarre example of how radioactive contamination can just spread through the eco-system came in 1998 when 700 feral pigeons that used a nearby garden as a roost were found to be so contaminated BNFL had to take away part of the garden's top soil it was so polluted. The pigeons had been roosting in semi-derelict parts of the vast Sellafield site. They had then been flying three miles to nearby Seascale village to be fed by animal lovers. The UK Ministry of Agriculture then issued warnings that the public should not consume local pigeon meat.
Over the last 20 years BNFL has reduced Sellafield discharge levels to less than 1% of their peak levels. In the past 10-15 years the company has invested more than £2billion in waste management and effluent treatment facilities.
But the legacy will never a June 2003 report adds..RADIOACTIVITY in the ground water under Sellafield is spreading into the sandstone rocks under the area. The subject was raised by former BNFL manager Allan Whittaker as a member of the public at the Sellafield Local Liaison meeting at Whitehaven civic hall on Friday. The Environment Agency spokesman Andrew Ferguson confirmed at the meeting that it has been aware of the radioactivity getting into groundwater for some time. They told the meeting: "Latest results indicated that contamination of groundwater is slightly more wide spread laterally, than previously thought. In addition both tritium and technetium99 have been detected in the sandtsone aquifer, which underlies Sellafield." In June 2009 A LEAK of radioactivity which has lasted for half a century at Sellafield was finally plugged.
The radioactive water is known to have seeped into the ground under the nuclear site for up to 50 years and the public was first told about it in the 1970s, since which time it has been monitored regularly at safe levels. But it is one of the radiation sources which has led to contamination on local beaches. The liquid has seeped from a crack in one of four huge concrete waste tanks which in the past processed effluent before being discharged into the Irish Sea. The seepage was first reported in the 1970s but at the time the technical know-how was not available to do anything about it. But this week The Whitehaven News was told the leak has been plugged and the site’s new landlords, Nuclear Management Partners, have hailed it as a big environmental breakthrough thanks to technology developed at Sellafield.

Recommended reading is Inside Sellafield by an insider who should know...former BNFL Director, Harold Bolter (Published by Quartet-ISBN 0 7043 8017 X)


In 2013 Eight years after it was produced from material gathered from the West Cumbrian coast near Waberthwaite,a radioactive ‘Pizza Cumbriana’ has finally been delivered to the Low Level Waste (LLW) facility at Drigg for disposal as LLW. Originally presented by CORE in March 2005 to the Italian Embassy in London as evidence of the environmental contamination caused by the reprocessing of Italian and other foreign spent fuel at Sellafield, the condemned pizza has languished with other LLW at the Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell until 22nd February 2013 when it was transported by road to its rightful resting place at Drigg.

The levels of radioactivity included 25,000 Bq/kg of Caesium 137, 25,000 Bq/kg of Americium 241 and levels of plutonium up to 15,000 Bq/kg. A subsequent report produced by Harwell Scientifics Ltd for the Environment Agency ‘Analysis of a Pizza Comprising of Sediment’ (RD 0693) confirmed the presence of high levels of Caesium 137, Americium 241, and Plutonium 238, 239 and 240.The radioactive half-life of Plutonium 239, an alpha (particle) radiation emitter is 24,400 years. The levels of radioactivity found by CORE along the West Cumbrian coast are absent from official annual monitoring reports because official sampling of mud and sediment consists of a 1cm deep sample being taken for analysis to compare annual discharge trends. Such shallow sampling completely ignores the historic build-up of radioactivity at those depths greater than 1cm routinely disturbed by holidaymakers, fishermen. dog walkers and children etc.. CORE website

To find out more about Sellafield, the following web sites may be helpful.
Norwegian Government report 2009 on risks of release from high level liquid waste tanks.