Wednesday, 12 August 2015

An unclear energy presentation

A slightly longer version of this piece  was published by The Ecologist on line on 12 August:

To mark the 70th anniversary of the first detonations of atomic bombs, two of which were used to immolate over 200, 000 people instantly when exploded over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki respectively on 6 and 9 August  1945, the BBC has  created a special “nuclear season” of programmes examining several aspects- civil and military – of nuclear  energy.

The BBC commissioned Baghdad- born Professor Jameel "Jim" Al-Khalili, a theoretical physicist  and Chair in the Public Engagement in Science from the University of Surrey, to research and present one programme called “Britain’s Nuclear Secrets: Inside Sellafield” (

As a regular BBC broadcaster, hosting the long-running The Life Scientific on Radio 4, and maker of several science programmes on television, including on quantum physics and the history of electricity, he was eminently qualified to make this programme.

His own web site lists these additional affiliations and skills:

President of the British Humanist Association; Fellow of Institute of Physics; Member of Royal Society Vision Committee for science and mathematics education 5–19; Member of Royal Society Equality and Diversity Awareness Network; Member of Editorial Board for the (new open access) Journal PMC Physics A; Associate Editor of Advanced Science Letters; Member of Cheltenham Science Festival Advisory Committee; Member of British Science Association Physics and Astronomy Section Committee; and is a  regular referee for Phys Rev, Phys Rev Letts, Nuclear Physics, Journal of Physics G

With such an extensive professional CV, he ought to be trusted to produce a compelling and accurate programme on one of the most exciting - if hazardous - scientific and engineering development of mankind: the nuclear project. The programme was compelling, but not accurate. It included several factual errors, and misled by errors of omission

Nonetheless, writing in the Daily Telegraph on 10 August , Professor Al-Khalili said:” I have been a nuclear physicist for almost 30 years but I have had very little to do with nuclear power or the nuclear industry. I certainly had very little idea what went on inside Sellafield beyond the basics..” but went on to conclude: “Sellafield is an incredible place. It is steeped in history, from Windscale (Britain’s first nuclear reactor) and Calder Hall (the world’s first civil nuclear power station) to Thorp, a remarkable state-of-the-art nuclear reprocessing plant and one of the largest in the world. The sheer scale of the place is astonishing, from giant indoor cooling pools to remotely controlled robotic arms the size of a house – all operated under the most frustratingly scrupulous safety procedures
(Jim Al-Khalili: What goes on in our nuclear industry?The physicist discusses what he learned while behind the scenes of the Sellafield nuclear power plant;
Scrupulous safety procedures?

Professor Al-Kalilili spent considerable time explain the key role of the, the £2.85Bn Thermal Oxide Reprocessing plant (Thorp), opened in 1994, once Sellafield’s jewel in the atomic crown. But for inexplicable reasons, he forgot to mention the Thorp accident that disabled the plant for four years in 2004.

I explained what happened in a letter published two years ago in the Whitehaven News, Sellafield’s local newspaper, following a n article marking the first 25 years of Thorp’s  operation.

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 26 May 2005, but released publicly in redacted form on 29 June  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
.” (emphasis added)

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 initially 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.
(‘Less rosy milestones in Thorp’s 25 years,’ Whitehaven News, letters, Thursday, 22 August 2013;
Regional campaign group, Cumbrians Opposed to a Radioactive Environment (CORE) published critique of Thorp’s operations in March this year, noting It has reprocessed just over 5,000 tonnes in its 20 years to 2014 due to numerous 'events' - yet had a design capacity of 1,000-1,200 tonnes per year. If Thorp meets its currently scheduled 2018 closure date ‘with all contracts completed’, the plant will have reprocessed a total of 9500 tonnes of spent fuel over 25 years of operation16 at an average annual rate of 380 tonnes per year (or 420 tonnes per year if the plant’s extended closure from 2005 is taken into account) – just one-third of design specification.

 CORE explains:

“Thorp’s failure to reprocess the projected 7,000 tonnes – by almost 2,000 tonnes – in the first ten years resulted from a catalogue of unplanned closures over the decade, the first striking within days of the plant’s opening when a spillage of nitric acid ate its way through cables and instrumentation and forced a shut-down of several weeks. The official down-playing of the extent and consequences of the leak was to become a common feature of many future accidents and unplanned stoppages which, when added to the planned outages, have contributed to a major loss of operational time over the last 20 years – and resulted in the 7,000 tonne baseload contracts being completed only in December 2012, some 9 years late.

Now in its 21st year of operation, THORP has been subjected to a series of closures – a majority unplanned – totalling some 6 years over the last 20 years…..

As a further damning indictment of THORP’s under-performance, these missed annual targets, set recently at around 400 tonnes per year, are but a pale shadow of BNFL’s original claim that THORP would reprocess 1,000 tonnes per year in the first ten years of operation (a design target not once achieved) and 800 tonnes per year thereafter – now wholly out of THORP’s reach.

Against this background it is unsurprising that those customers – whose continued support was being relied on by BNFL – were unprepared to give Thorp any further business. Indeed, rather than securing a single new contract from overseas, as originally projected, contracts from German utilities were cancelled in the plant’s first year of operation – losing BNFL an estimated £250M.

When summarised, Thorp’s poor reprocessing performance together with years lost through unplanned stoppages, the failure to meet targets and the loss of contracts and customer confidence, paint a picture of a plant that bears no resemblance to the world-leading flagship image portrayed by BNFL 21 years ago. The only ‘attribute’ still to be qualified is the claim of Thorp’s £500M profit in the first ten years of operation.

Though its faltering performance and inept management has badly holed the overrated Thorp flagship below the waterline, the views of an ex-BNFL Director who was heavily involved in the battle to open Thorp, add a further dimension. In his book Inside Sellafield, the long serving Harold Bolter suggests that the figures fed into the plant’s economic case by BNFL ‘have turned out to be incorrect in several important respects’ and more tellingly that ‘if the highly complex plant fails to operate to its projected standard, it will become a huge financial drain on the nation.’”

(“Sellafield’s THORP reprocessing plant – A Lame Duck and Loser,” 27 March 2015)

‘Japan’s atomic ambivalence over nuclear relations with UK,’ NukeInfoTokyo, 6 August 2015;

Calder Hall ‘s dual  mission

Speaking from inside the plant, Professor Al-Khalili described  Calder Hall as world’s first commercial nuclear power station.” This is untrue in two ways. Calder Hall was not a “commercial” nuclear power plant, but a plutonium production plant run by the UK Atomic Energy Authority for the Ministry of Defence to provide nuclear explosive materials for nuclear warheads.
Click and drag the image to move around the page

Within a month, Mr Maudling in Parliament told Tory back bencher, Wing Commander Eric Bullus - who had asked the Paymaster-General what change there has been in the intention to modify three nuclear power stations to enable plutonium suitable for military use to be extracted should the need arise?-

“Last year Her Majesty's Government asked the Central Electricity Generating Board to make a small modification in the design of certain power stations to enable plutonium suitable for military purposes to be extracted if need should arise. Having taken into account recent developments, including the latest agreement with the United States, and having re-assessed the fissile material which will become available for military purposes from all sources, it has been decided to restrict the modifications to one power station, namely, Hinkley Point.” (emphasis added)

(Hansard, 22 June 1959 cols 847-9)

The spectre of the new nuclear renaissance

Professor Al-Khalili ended his programme waxing lyrical about the prospects of a new generation of British reactors being built, including several planned alongside the Sellafield site, in a project known as "Moorside."

Recently, Martin Forwood of CORE explained that “The 'biggest construction project in Europe' is expanding from Nugen's original 200 hectare site to 552 hectares of farmland reaching right up to two villages and an 11th Century church. But with compulsory purchase on the cards, there's nothing locals can do except keep on fighting the entire deeply flawed project.”

(‘Moorside, Cumbria: the great nuclear land grab,‘7th August 2015

Marianne Birkby, another indefatigable local Cumbrian campaigner agains the nuclear industry, has written to the BBC Trust – responsible for BBC broadcast standards-( to complain about the bias in Professor Al-Khalili’s  programme

Birkby heads her complaint “Biased Infomercial’, arguing “ The programme purports to be investigative journalism when it is an infomercial for the nuclear industry and the government’s new build agenda. *The real story* suggests impartiality. While the programme reiterates in a misleadingly superficial way the known dangers of nuclear power there was no attempt at all by the programme makers to speak to opponents of nuclear power or even whistleblowers from within the industry.

PR group Copper Consultancy have advised the nuclear industry/government bodies such as DECC to use *science champions* to promote new nuclear development. Jim Al-Khalili is one of BBC’s foremost science champions. He rounds off the programme with enthusiastic endorsements for new nuclear build while standing within the ancient field systems that are under threat of new nuclear development.

This is at the time when there is a consultation going on. Grass roots group Radiation Free Lakeland have been aggressively warned off sending any briefings from independent scientists about new build to Copeland Council’s Nationally Significant Infrastructure Panel as *it might prejudice decisions.

This BBC 4 Infomercial masquerading as investigative journalism is entirely prejudicial in its promotion of new nuclear build.”

She is right to raise her objections. As I have explained, they actually go deeper and wider than she sets out.

Endnote:  The programme consultant was, I kid you not, Professor Andrea Sella,
a chemist and broadcaster based at University College
London where he is a Professor of Inorganic Chemistry. He sits on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Cheltenham Science Festival and on the Education Committee of
the Royal Institution.He was awarded the 2014 Michael Faraday Prize from The Royal Society for "his excellent work in science communication.
It makes me wonder what happened to the critical faculties of these two professors when they made this programme. The BBC’s own programme editors should be ashamed at allowing such a programme making it to air without proper editing.


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