Thursday, 29 August 2013

Syrian pit-fallouts


Nobody knows for certain what might result from bombing Syria. There are certain to  be diplomatic penalties to pay with Russia, China and maybe the ‘Arab street, seeing western bombs once more falling on muslims.


But we can be sure if chemical weapons stockpiles are bombed, the contents will be dispersed, with potentially catastrophic effects on those nearby?


Parliament’s independent Office of Science and Technology (POST) has produced a helpful note on a past incident in the first Gulf War in March 1991, which says in part:


“ that some releases may occur can however be illustrated by experience of the destruction of sarin at Khamisiyah by US troops after the Gulf War [in 1991] Here, at least 8.5 tonnes of sarin (and the closely related cyclosarin) nerve agents were blown up (it was not realised that the bunker contained chemical warheads). Subsequent investigations have been the most detailed to date into nerve agent behaviour on demolition (in the public domain)….”


The issue of contamination from bombing of Khamisiyah has been raised several times by peers in the Lords over the past 10 years. For instance, Conservative minister Lord Bach told Lord Morris in March  2004 “From July 1997, following more detailed analysis by the US authorities, it became clear that British forces could have been exposed to low levels of chemical agents [from Khamisiyah]…. As a result, the Ministry of Defence reviewed the US modelling work and published a paper in December 1999 titled, Review of Events Concerning 32 Field Hospital and the Release of Nerve Agent Arising From US Demolition of Iraqi Munitions at the Khamisiyah Depot in March 1991 (which can be found at:

The paper concluded that up to 9,000 British troops could have been within the modelled plume but that the possible level of nerve agent exposure would have “no detectable effect on human health, in either the short or long term.” (Hansard, 25 March 2004 : Column WA112)


A Pentagon Report into the incident revealed in July 1997 that : “Ten months after estimating 20,000 U.S. soldiers may have been exposed to Iraqi nerve gas during the Persian Gulf War, DoD revised the figure to 98,910…. Soldiers destroyed about 500 of 1,200 unmarked chemical rockets in an open pit at Khamisiyah. Only 18 percent of the nerve agent was released into the atmosphere. …”


The Pentagon also continued to deny health impact on veterans.


(DoD Says 98,910 Exposed to Low Levels of Nerve Agent

American Forces Press Service, WASHINGTON, July 28, 1997


But a subsequent technical paper, published in the authoritative American Journal of Public Health, August 2005, concluded :


“exposed veterans had an increased risk of brain cancer deaths ….The risk of brain cancer death was larger among those exposed 2 or more days than those exposed 1 day when both were compared separately to all unexposed veterans.

Conclusions. Exposure to chemical munitions at Khamisiyah may be associated with an increased risk of brain cancer death.”


(Mortality in US Army Gulf War Veterans Exposed to 1991 Khamisiyah Chemical Munitions Destruction,;  Am J Public Health v.95(8); Aug 2005 PMC1449370; Tim A. Bullman, MA, Clare M. Mahan, PhD, Han K. Kang, DrPH, and William F. Page, PhD)

It is entirely innocent and beleaguered Syrian civilians who will be the immediate  victims if chemicals weapons stores are bombed. Victims twice over.

Red Line: but who crossed them first?

President Obama  proclaimed use of chemical weapons as “crossing red line.” Everyone is appalled by such use of illegal weapons.

Except our own export licencing department, apparently, who have facilitated the sale of precursor chemicals  capable of being turned into chemical weapons to Syria!

Parliament’s own Committees on Arms Exports Control last month accused ministers  in its report of permitting export of  industrial materials over the past few years to Syria that could have been used to make chemical weapons.

The Business Secretary wrote to Sir John Stanley, chairman of the joint committees  a year ago  stating:

"Chemicals used for industrial/commercial processes"—two Standard Individual Export Licences (SIEL)

These licences were issued on 17 and 18 January 2012 and authorised the export of dual-use chemicals to a private company for use in industrial processes. The chemicals were sodium fluoride and potassium fluoride.

These chemicals have legitimate commercial uses — for example, sodium fluoride is used in the fluoridation of drinking water and the manufacture of toothpaste; and potassium fluoride has applications in the metallurgical industry and the manufacture of pesticides.

But the the Business Secretary tellingly added:

However, they could also be used as precursor chemicals in the manufacture of chemical weapons which is why they are included on the Australia Group chemical weapons precursors list.”

These licences were only revoked on 30 July 2012, well into the Syrian civil war.

A statement published to accompany publication of the Report last month on 17 July said:

“The Committees welcome the Foreign Secretary’s statement that ‘we will not issue licences where we judge there is a clear risk the proposed export might provoke or prolong regional or internal conflicts, or which might be used to facilitate internal repression’

However, the Committees adhere to their previous recommendation that the Government should apply significantly more cautious judgements when considering arms export licence applications for goods to authoritarian regimes “which might be used to facilitate internal repression” in contravention of the Government’s stated policy."

It is manifest that ministers have utterly failed to deliver this recommendation as it assisted Syria’s chemicals weapons programme.

It  has abrogated any moral right it  may b have had to  object to Syria breaching international norms against chemical weapons while assisting President Assad in making them.

It is not as if Parliament has not been warned. The Labour MP Louse Ellman, told the Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT) News in August/September in  2012 that she was “gravely concerned about hazardous exports to the Syria/Iran regimes”, as the government publicly admit that they cannot check final destinations of exports once they have left the UK. “I’ll be calling ministers urgently to see how UK officials can realistically monitor the end-use of military exports to Iran and Syria, especially chemical warfare agents.”

When will we learn the lesson?


Saturday, 24 August 2013

Sellafield's Thorp reprocessing plant: it's all about how you tell the tale

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
Stoneleigh, Surrey
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.

Sellafield Thorp photo

Inside Thorp

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.”


Thursday, 22 August 2013

Fracking’s radiation risk


Along with many banners saying ‘Could you kindly Frack Off’, ‘Police say no to fracking!’ For a frack-free future’, protestors at Balcombe this week have highlighted concerns over contamination of the local water table, fugitive emissions of fracked methane  gas that could exacerbate climate change dangers, and worries over community disruption  from many lorries  that will have to come to areas hosting fracking platforms with  toxic liquids used to flush out shale gas. 

Earlier this month in an article in the Daily Telegraph, David Cameron tried counter concerns over prospective environmental hazards such as water contamination  by referring to a "stringent regulatory system."

Cameron’s coalition partners also give cautious support for shale gas in a motion to be debated at the LibDem conference next month saying limited shale gas extraction should be allowed, provided that "regulations controlling pollution and protecting local environmental quality are strictly enforced, planning decisions remain with local authorities and local communities are fully consulted over extraction and fully compensated for all damage to the local landscape".

But neither of the Con-Dem coalition partners, nor indeed the protestors in Balcombe,  makes any mention of radioactive risks  arising from fracking.

However, Mr Cameron’s own Health minister, Anna Soubry, has told Labour MP Paul Flynn in a written answer in May that Public Health England (formerly the Health Protection Agency) is preparing a report identifying potential public health issues and concerns, including radon (release/emissions, my emphasis)) that might be associated with aspects of hydraulic fracturing, also referred to as fracking. The report is due out for public consultation in the summer. Once released for public consultation, the report will be freely available from the PHE website.” (Hansard, 20 May: Column 570W)

PHE have told me they now do not expect their report to see the light before the end of the year, which is hugely disappointing considering its prospective  importance to the public debate.

PHE is concerned to evaluate the potential risks of radon gas being pumped into citizens’ homes as part of the shale gas stream. Unless the gas is stored for several days to allow the radon's radioactivity to naturally reduce, this is potentially very dangerous.

Radon is unquestionably the leading cause of lung cancer in non-smokers.  A report produced by the HPA in 2009,
Radon and Public Health. (Report of an independent Advisory Group on Ionising Radiation: Docs RCE 11, HPA 2009: states:

“Radon is a naturally occurring colourless and odourless radioactive gas that can seep out of the ground and build up in houses, buildings, and indoor workplaces. Epidemiological studies have established that exposure to radon is a cause of lung cancer, with a linear dose-response relationship. Exposure to radon is now recognised as the second largest cause of lung cancer in the UK after smoking and analysis for the Health Protection Agency indicates that about 1100 UK deaths from lung cancer each year are caused by exposure to radon (most caused jointly by radon and smoking”

Initially radon released from its virtually sealed underground locations will be in monatomic suspension, but then it accretes onto dust particles, pipework, etc, and some of it may remain suspended in the gas and come out in our cookers.

US concerns
The current concern about how much radon is likely to be piped into people's kitchens was spurred by a report last year by Dr Marvin Resnikoff, of Radioactive Waste Management Associates( Dr Resnikoff estimated radon levels from the Marcellus gas field - the nearest one being exploited to New York - as up to 70 times the average. Dr Resnikoff’s group, now based in Vermont, used be to be based in Brooklyn, New York, hence its work on shale gas being piped to New York consumers. RWMAs suggest some shale gas deposits contain as much as 30 times the radiation that is found in normal background.

Moreover, Professor, James W. Ring, Winslow Professor of Physics Emeritus, Hamilton College in New York State ( stresses:

The radon and natural gas coming from the shale mix together and travel together as the gas is piped to customers. This is a serious health hazard, as radon––being a gas––is breathed into the lungs and lodges there to decay, doing damage to the lungʼs tissue and eventually leading to lung cancer.”


Radon has a half-life of 3.8 days. Using the general rule of thumb of 10 half-lives to decay to 1/1000 of original concentration, that would be 38 days, or roughly one month, depending on how radioactive it was to start.


Fracked gas would  thus  need to  be stored for at least a month before being  distributed to peoples’ homes, to allow for this radioactive decay of radon.

The Radon Council, formed in 1990,  is an independent non-profit making self-regulatory body for the radon protection industry. Its formation was welcomed in the Interim Report of the Parliamentary Select Committee on Indoor Pollution, which called upon industry to provide a solution to the radon problem. The first objectives were to identify the “cowboy” operators and dubious training courses then in practice.  Later there followed a first edition of a training manual  and an agreed Code of Practice for the industry.

It does not seem ministers hav reas any of the Radon Council’s literature, so gung-ho are they for fracking!

At the end of July the Communities Department published its Revision of building regulation policy on radon. In the impact assessment it explains the reason for the revised regulation is:

Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas linked to lung cancer. Alongside a health and awareness programme and testing and remediation of existing buildings, current Government policy includes targeted intervention through the Building Regulations which requires radon protection in new buildings in areas of elevated radon risk….We intend that the Building Regulations and supporting statutory guidance is clear on current radon risks, and ensures buildings are fitted with proportionate measures to prevent the ingress of radon and thus reduce radon-related lung cancers. ”


It later adds “The respective cumulative risks of lung cancer [from radon exposure] affecting people by age 75 years in the UK at 100 and 200 Bq m-3 are 0.42% and 0.47% for non-smokers and 17% and 19% for continuing smokers.”

It also states boldly: “The chosen policy will maintain a targeted regulatory intervention (aligned to the most up-to-date radon maps), to ensure that all buildings in higher-risk areas incorporate appropriate radon measures.”

In light of this clear precautionary approach, it is odd that all ministers seem to be cheerleading for expanded fracking, despite its possible radon risk.

In January 2012 the European Commission Energy Directorate released a 100-page report on ‘Unconventional Gas in Europe,’ primarily assessing the situation in France, Germany, Poland and Sweden. It has a section on environmental liability, but no mention of radon pollution.

Nuclear waste too

In addition, both RWMA in the US and the internationally respected Norwegian environmental consultancy, DNV (Det Norske Veritas have identified radioactive waste contamination as one problem with fracking, arising from  contaminated rock cuttings and cores to which have the potential for exposure to radioactivity on health. Risks relating to NORM (naturally occurring radioactive materials) contaminated downhole and surface equipment should also be considered, both suggest.

(Risk Management of Shale Gas Developments and Operations January 2013 DNV-RP-U301;

The Commission report also records that in Sweden, the handling of radioactive shales requires a permit in accordance with the Radiation Protection Act and the Radiation Protection Ordinance. This is the case when the uranium content exceeds 80 ppm (parts per million), it points out. This permit is granted by the Swedish Radiation Safety Authority. “Non-compliance with the permit can lead to it being revoked and, if done intentionally, the responsible person can be fined or even imprisoned,” it warns.


It adds that in Sweden, the possible occurrence of radioactive materials (NORMS), heavy metals or saline brines is taken into account by the permit for the environmentally hazardous activity, required for the disposal of waste water.

Green MP Dr Caroline Lucas, who was arrested on Monday this week while protesting against fracking in Balcombe, initiated a debate on fracking on 18 July, the last day of Parliament before the summer recess, drew attention to the radon risk and the outstanding PHE report. She asked the minister, Michael Fallon, pointedly: “Will the Minister explain the delay in publishing this research report when the public debate over fracking is moving ahead apace?”

Fallon replied to several of Caroline Lucas’ questions on environmental hazards of fracking, but ignored the one on radon risks. I wonder why?





Thursday, 8 August 2013

Atomic Atonement

This week  we  mark  the 68th  anniversary of the atomic immolation of the Japanese  cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

At the Hiroshima Commemoration in London  - which I attended -  Labour  MP Jeremy Corbyn called for Trident and  its planned replacement nuclear WMDs to be scrapped, and the   resources saved being re-directed to social expenditure (NHS, schools) and  improving our environment ( sustainable energy,  proper resource  management etc).

But one new issue was not  mentioned:  the revelation in the Japan Times that Britain supported the use of atomic bombs by the United States against Japan in World War II,  about a month before the first one was dropped on Hiroshima, according to documents recently declassified by the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. ("Britain backed use of A-bomb against Japan: U.S. documents," 4 August),
The newspaper revealed that the British government officially expressed its support for using the new weapon against Japan at the Combined Policy Committee meeting in Washington on July 4, 1945, on the development and control of nuclear energy. Britain referred to atomic bombs as Tube Alloys (T.A.), a codename it used for wartime research on nuclear weapons.
According to the declassified minutes, British Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson told the meeting chaired by U.S. Secretary of War, Henry Stimson, that the British government “concurred in the use of the T.A. weapon against Japan.”

“The Governments of the United Kingdom and the United States had agreed that T.A. weapons should be used by the United States against Japan, the agreement of the British Government having been communicated” by Wilson, the minutes said.

The committee was established based on the Quebec Agreement made in August 1943 by the United States, Britain and Canada on coordinated development of atomic weapons.

Britain’s official agreement on the use of atomic bombs came after U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill agreed at their September 1944 meeting in New York that an atomic bomb might be used against Japan when it was developed.
This is an additional reason  why the UK  needs to show  some atomic atonement,  and get on with nuclear disarmament.