Don’t forget Sellafield and Hanford

When discussing whether to turn from coal to nuclear power, media pundits usually admit to only three disastrous nuclear sites: Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and now Fukushima. No one ever mentions the nuclear waste explosion at Kyshtym in the Urals, the fire at Windscale, the ravaged test site Semipalatinsk, or the hydrogen bomb contamination at Palomares. Every now and then the subject of cleaning up Hanford in the US or Sellafield in the UK is discussed, but even though reprocessing is common at many nuclear power plants, these severely contaminated reprocessing sites never seem to matter when discussing the future of nuclear power. In 2009, the Guardian posted, Sellafield: the most hazardous place in Europe :

During the miners’ strike of 1972, the nation’s nuclear plants were run at full stretch in order to supply electricity to a beleaguered nation. As a result, it proved impossible to process all the waste that was being generated. Cladding and fuel were simply thrown into B38’s cooling ponds and left to disintegrate.

But the building, like so many other elderly edifices at Sellafield, is crumbling and engineers now face the headache of dealing with its lethal contents.

This, then, is the dark heart of Sellafield, a place where engineers and scientists are only now confronting the legacy of Britain’s postwar atomic aspirations and the toxic wasteland that has been created on the Cumbrian coast. Engineers estimate that it could cost the nation up to £50bn to clean this up over the next 100 years.

Sellafield contains the air-cooled Windscale Piles plutonium production plant and water-cooled Calder Hall power plant reactors, but like Hanford was largely a reprocessing facility, extracting weapons grade plutonium from spent fuel. Just yesterday the Guardian again noted, Sellafield executives to face MPs as nuclear clean-up bill rises over £70bn :

It was hoped that the huge bill – eight times the cost of staging the London Olympics – would be capped at £70bn, but well-placed sources have told the Guardian that the operators are convinced they are still “not at the top” of the cost curve.

Sellafield is regarded as the most dangerous and polluted industrial site in western Europe, not least because it houses 120 tonnes of plutonium, the largest civilian stockpile in the world.

The cost of decommissioning the Calder Hall reactor plus a magnox fuel reprocessing plant at Sellafield has been rising steeply, but the biggest task comes from “ponds” and “silos” filled with old equipment and deteriorating, highly toxic waste.

And a few days ago, the LA Times posted, Doubts grow about plan to dispose of Hanford’s radioactive waste :

The aging tanks at the former Hanford nuclear weapons complex contain 56 million gallons of sludge, the byproduct of several decades of nuclear weapons production, and they represent one of the nation’s most treacherous environmental threats.

Energy Department officials have repeatedly assured the public that they have the advanced technology needed to safely dispose of the waste. An industrial city has been under development here for 24 years, designed to transform the sludge into solid glass and prepare it for permanent burial.
But with $13 billion already spent, there are serious doubts that the highly complex technology will even work or that the current plan can clean up all the waste. Alarmed at warnings raised by outside experts and some of the project’s own engineers, Department of Energy officials last year ordered a halt to construction on the most important parts of the waste treatment plant.

It is already clear that private industry will not finance nuclear plants themselves, instead relying on public money to construct, commission and decommission them. It now seems that there may not be enough money to clean up the worst of them.

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