Less rosy milestones in Thorp’s 25 years
Whitehaven News, letters, Thursday, 22 August 2013
SIR – Your report on the Sellafield’s Thorp reprocessing plant’s 25th anniversary (The Whitehaven News, August 15) contained some omissions.
INSIDE THORP: A storage pond at Thorp. The reprocessing plant has marked its 25th anniversary but has not been short of controversy in its time
In May 2005, it was first reported that a serious leak of highly radioactive nuclear fuel dissolved in concentrated nitric acid, enough to half fill an Olympic-size swimming pool, had forced the closure of Thorp.
The highly dangerous mixture, containing about 22 tonnes of uranium and plutonium fuel, in liquid form, with a volume of around 83m3, had leaked through a fractured pipe into a huge stainless steel chamber in the “feed clarification cell”.
The Nuclear Installations Inspectorate – now the Office for Nuclear Regulation – report on the accident, issued in December 2005, said that 160kg of plutonium was leaked (that’s enough to make 20 nuclear weapons).
The NII investigation identified that the company had been in breach of nuclear site licence conditions at the Sellafield site.
The Financial Times reported in May 2005 there was some evidence to suggest that the pipe may have started to fail in July or August 2004. Failure of the pipe (at which point significant amounts of liquor started to be released into the cell) is believed to have occurred in mid-January 2005. However, in the period between January 2005 (and perhaps earlier) and April 19 2005, opportunities, such as cell sampling and level measurements, were missed which would have shown that material was escaping to secondary containment.
Operations staff at Sellafield then failed to act appropriately to consequent off-normal conditions, according to Sellafield Ltd’s board of inquiry report, Fractured Pipe with Loss of Primary Containment in the THORP Feed Clarification Cell, dated May 26 2005, but released publicly in redacted form on June 29 2005.
The most extraordinary conclusion of the report reads: “Given the history of such events so far, it seems likely there will remain a significant chance of further plant failures in the future, even with the comprehensive implementation of the recommendations of this report.”
For an unknown reason the report of this hugely significant accident is listed on the Sellafield Ltd website under the section on “operational excellence”.
This intitally led to a near three-year closure, with a loss of £2million a day, if BNFL’s claims of the value of operating Thorp are to be believed. A further closure of Thorp followed due to a separate incident.
On October 16 2006 at Carlisle Crown Court, Sellafield Ltd was fined £300,000 for the breach of licence condition 27, £100,000 for the breach of licence condition 24 and £100,000 for the breach of licence condition 34.
I find it hard to understand why none of these details found it into your article, although I could understand if Nuclear Management Partners or the NDA might want to omit such embarrassing details from any briefing they provided for the media, as both are seeking new Sellafield contracts.
Dr David LOWRY
Environmental policy and research consultant
Sellafield's Thorp plant celebrates 25 years in business
by David Hemming
Whitehaven News, Monday, 12 August 2013
It was the largest single project ever completed in the UK, costing a mind-boggling £2.8bn.
Since the opening of the receipt and storage section at Sellafield’s Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant, or Thorp for short, on August 8, 1988, more than 8,000 tonnes of fuel have been dealt with.
What’s more, it has also generated £9bn worth of business from 34 major customers in nine different countries.
Staff, bosses and nuclear industry leaders gathered at the swanky visitors’ centre inside the massive building, which is the length of five football pitches, to celebrate 25 years of safe operation on Thursday.
Times have changed greatly since the day it opened.
Liverpool FC were English champions, fuel was just 34p per litre, and Yazz and the Plastic Population’s The Only Way Is Up topped the music charts.
But some things in west Cumbria never change, like the debate surrounding new nuclear missions.
Back then site unions were leading the campaign for Sellafield to be a key part of the UK’s energy future.
Nowadays the debate focuses on plutonium reuse, new power generation and what to do with the waste stored at Sellafield.
In 1988 the workforce and local community were hailing the opening of Thorp’s receipt and storage facility.
At the time a huge public relations exercise was going in a bid to drum up support for the plant.
This carried on into the early 1990s when employees and trade union officials took to the road with the Trust Us campaign.
And now bosses are hailing the past quarter of a decade of Thorp as a “safe and reliable operation”.
Alan Moses, facility manager, pays tribute to the plant’s workforce.
He says: “The employees in receipt and storage are highly skilled with an abundance of expertise.
“Many of the faces you see in the plant have been there since day one, the knowledge and experience they have is invaluable – they know the place inside out.”
Mr Moses also praises the team for being a “key element in keeping the lights on in Britain”.
And head of the Thorp operating unit, Jack Williamson, calls the plant the “blue ribbon of the nuclear industry in the UK and worldwide”.
John Clarke, chief executive of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA), worked at the facility when it opened.
He explains how it was set out to be something different from the outset – with a visitors’ centre making it accessible to the public.
He also says there was a clear aim to operate differently to other sites, based on team spirit.
“It paid off,” he adds. “Our staff were happy back then and they still are today.
“It’s testament to the fact that this is a special plant.”
American Scott Sax, who recently took over as director of spent fuel management at Sellafield, describes Thorp as “complex from a mechanical end to a chemical end”.
“There’s no other reactor anywhere else in the world that’s even close to being as complex,” he adds. “It’s the people here who make the difference – in every single team there’s someone who has been here for 25 years.
“That’s really rare in an industry like this.”
In five years Thorp will stop reprocessing but it won’t be a case of turning off the lights and walking away.
The plant is due to be decommissioned in 2018 as set out in the NDA’s Oxide fuel strategy.
But the receipt and storage side will remain in operation until 2085.
“There is still a lot of work that needs to be done,” Alan Moses says.
“Preparation work is currently ongoing to put us in the best position to receive our UK customers’ fuel in order for the fleet of reactors to keep producing electricity.
“We will continue to fulfil our customer’s needs, there is still a lot to do but we have the workforce with which we can do it.”
Last year Thorp completed its initial base load contract after reprocessing its 7,000th tonne of spent nuclear fuel.
Steve Nicholson from the Sellafield Workers’ Campaign insists the crusade to improve public perception will also continue.
He says: “It doesn’t seem that long ago that the Trust Us nuclear workers Thorp campaign was out and about rallying for support.
“We may be 25 years on but the campaign is still out there lobbying.
“We are in regular meetings with influential people including representatives of number 10 discussing nuclear topics.
“We will be at the party political conferences once again this year, promoting the industry in west Cumbria and making clear our core aim; to achieve the ongoing development of the nuclear industry and finding a long term solution for the UK’s higher level wastes, promoting new nuclear build as a source of low carbon energy, and to support the re-use of plutonium.”