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September 5, 2013 7:31 pm
The site of Britain’s worst nuclear accident is being cleaned up after more than 50 years, a symbolic step forward in the country’s struggle to deal with its nuclear legacy while planning a new generation of power stations.
The chimney of the old Windscale plant at Sellafield, where a fire broke out in 1957, is to be dismantled after site managers said the radioactivity had decayed to safer levels.
The news comes as Japan struggles to contain radioactive water leaks more than two years after an earthquake and tsunami struck the Fukushima nuclear plant and amid criticism of the slow pace of the clean-up of Sellafield, Europe’s largest nuclear facility.
Steve Slater, head of decommissioning at the site, said: “Bringing the chimney down will be a real visual demonstration of our commitment to cleaning up Sellafield.”
The 110m-high structure on the Cumbrian coast is the signature image of Britain’s troubled nuclear past, along with the decommissioned golf ball-shaped advanced gas reactor.
“The decommissioning challenges posed by the pile chimney are unique – no other structure in the world provides the same complexity in terms of radiological and conventional decommissioning constraints,” Mr Slater said.
The chimney, capped after the blaze, has been opened for the first time in 17 years. Work will begin on stripping the filters, which trapped radiation released when the reactor overheated. Some of the work will be done manually and some using remotely operated machines to minimise workers’ exposure to radiation.
The move comes amid criticism of slow progress to deal with the estimated £67.5bn cost of decommissioning Sellafield – western Europe’s biggest nuclear facility – over the next century.
Some reprocessing of nuclear fuel still takes place at the site but its reactors are closed and the main focus is on clearing up decades of nuclear waste.
The private consortium in charge of the job – Nuclear Management Partners – will find out this month if its five-year contract will be extended. NMP is made up of URS of the US, France’s Areva and Amec of the UK.
The consortium answers to the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, the government body in overall charge of the UK clean-up, which spends more than half its budget – about £1.7bn last year – at Sellafield.
John Clarke, chief executive of the NDA, this year expressed “real disappointments” over delays at the site. Reports from the Public Accounts Committee and the National Audit Office have criticised the NMP.
The NDA has hired KPMG, the consultants, who are examining three options: extending the contract for another five years, re-tendering it or taking it back into government hands.
Samir Brikho, chief executive of Amec, said recently that he was confident the contract would be extended, although he expected the company to make less money from the project in the second period.
This month, the government is due to resume its search for an underground storage facility to take the most toxic waste, seen by critics as vital to the future of a new reactor building programme.
It has said it would only locate such a facility with the support of local residents. Councils in Cumbria decided in January not to host the £12bn repository over fears over that it could deter tourists and possibly leak.
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