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UK says may dump more nuclear waste in Irish Sea after 2006

Planet Ark

13th December 2002

Britain said this week it might have to dump radioactive pollution stockpiled at its Sellafield nuclear reprocessing plant into the Irish Sea after 2006 as tanks storing the waste age and may become unsafe.

Environment Minister Michael Meacher said the government was researching ways to store the waste permanently onland but if this was not successful, then the radioactive liquid technetium-99 kept in offshore tanks may be dumped in the sea.
"If the tanks can't take it beyond 2006, then we might have to look at an alternative solution... to discharge (their contents) into the Irish Sea quickly," Meacher told a news conference.

The tanks, built in the 1950s and 1960s at the Sellafield site in Cumbria in northwest England, do not meet modern standards and have already exceeded their expected lifetimes, said the government.

Ireland and Norway oppose the Sellafield plant and in June Dublin asked an international court in The Hague for access to information about the plant's viability which Britain says is commercially sensitive.

Norway has called on Britain to halt radioactive emissions from Sellafield, traces of which have been found as far away as the Artic Barents Sea.

But in the short term, Meacher said Sellafield, owned by state-run British Nuclear Fuels, will slash technetium-99 emissions into the sea by 2006 in response to complaints from Norway and Ireland about the pollution.

Sellafield is allowed to release up to 90 terabecquerels (TBq) of technetium-99 into the Irish Sea but will have to cut this to 10 TBq by 2006.

"We are accepting the Energy Agency's proposals (to cut the discharges) but we want to go further," Meacher said.

Meacher said the discharge of technetium-99 into the Irish Sea could be halted altogether if research into storing the waste in the tanks permanently onshore is successful.

Sellafield will start in March processing newly produced technetium-99 into glass blocks suitable for long-term storage onland.

This technology cannot be used on waste already stockpiled in Sellafield's tanks which hold about 200 TBq of technetium-99.

Britain first established nuclear facilities at Sellafield, formerly called Windscale, in the 1940s and the world's first commercial nuclear power station was opened there in 1956.

Research has shown lobsters and other shellfish in the North and Irish Seas have traces of technetium-99.

Britain admits the waste has been found in lobsters but says there is no evidence it has accumulated in fish.