The Sellafield nuclear site, one of Europe's most hazardous nuclear facilities, is grappling with a significant safety crisis due to a worsening leak from a massive silo containing radioactive waste. This alarming situation, which could potentially endanger the public, has escalated diplomatic tensions with the United States, Norway, and Ireland, all of which express concerns about the site's management and safety protocols.
Located on the Cumbrian coast and spanning 6 square kilometers, Sellafield employs about 11,000 people. It serves as a key facility for storing and treating nuclear waste from both weapons programs and nuclear power generation, making it the largest of its kind in Europe. However, the site faces numerous safety issues, including the risk of groundwater contamination and general degradation of safety across various domains, from nuclear safety to asbestos and fire standards.
A particularly troubling aspect is the leak of radioactive liquid from the Magnox swarf storage Silo (MSSS), considered one of the UK's highest nuclear hazards. This leak, expected to continue until 2050, could have severe consequences if it accelerates, including the contamination of groundwater. Furthermore, cracks have developed in the concrete and asphalt covering a huge pond containing decades of nuclear sludge, adding to the catalog of safety concerns.
The Guardian's year-long investigation into Sellafield has revealed problems ranging from cyber hacking and radioactive contamination to a toxic workplace culture. The leak from the MSSS has been ongoing for more than three years, with 2.3-2.5 cubic meters of radioactive “liquor” leaking daily. This fluid is a mixture of radioactive magnesium alloy filings dissolved in water from waste cladding that encased spent Magnox nuclear fuel.
The health implications of radiation exposure are varied but can include immediate effects like nausea and vomiting and long-term impacts such as cardiovascular disease, cataracts, and cancer. High radiation doses can be lethal. Adding to the complexity, it's challenging to determine the exact extent of the cracks in the silo, leading to reliance on guesswork and modeling to assess the risk to the public and workers at the site.
There are also significant worries about another facility at the site, B30, a pond containing nuclear sludge and described as one of the most dangerous industrial buildings in Europe. It's suffering from worsening cracks and contains radioactive sludge from corroded nuclear fuel rods used in old power stations.
Internal documents and reports have highlighted more than 100 safety problems at the site that are of serious regulatory concern. These include fire safety issues like non-functioning alarms, daily work stoppages due to a lack of qualified staff, and increasing incidents of contamination and radiation protection.
Despite these challenges, Sellafield's management maintains that the site poses no additional risk to staff and the public, claiming a strong safety record and continuous improvement efforts. However, the site's basic safety requirements are reportedly wearing thin, with long-term dangers being ignored or uncontained, raising concerns about the potential for a severe incident at one of the world's most toxic nuclear sites.