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Saturday, 20 December 2014

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‘Complacency and negligence’ blamed for radiation blunder

COMPLACENCY and negligence at Sellafield Ltd resulted in bags of radioactive waste being accidently dumped at a landfill site, a court has heard.

In April 2010, the company sent four bags from its plant to Lillyhall landfill, instead of the low-level repository at Drigg. All of the bags, which contained waste such as gloves, mops and rubber, were retrieved and returned to Sellafield for correct disposal.

Seven charges were brought by the Environment Agency (EA) and the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR), after an investigation into “multiple failures” involving the incorrect disposal of low-level radioactive waste.

Sellafield admitted the charges, although Eleanor Sanderson, for the company, disputed that the error was out of complacency and negligence and claimed that staff work “tirelessly” to maintain safety on site.

The case was heard at West Cumbria Courthouse last week and has been adjourned for sentencing at Carlisle Crown Court on March 8.

The court heard from Barry Berlin, for the Health Safety Executive (HSE) and EA, who said an error was caused by a new monitor which had passed the bags as ‘general’ waste, making them exempt from strict disposal controls. The mistake only came to light when a training exercise was carried out at Sellafield.

An investigation was immediately launched and it was reported that five bags containing radioactive waste had passed through undetected. One remained at Sellafield and the other four had already been transported to Lillyhall.

Further investigations showed that one of the four bag’s at Lillyhall had split, contaminating a further five bags. Tests by the EA have since established there was no contamination at the landfill site.

Dr Rob Allott, nuclear regulator team leader for the EA, said: “It’s highly likely that some groups of people would have been exposed to radioactivity. The waste is inherently hazardous, but with a low risk factor.”

He said the risk to people and wildlife would have been very low.

The court heard there was further “multiple failures” regarding transportation regulations. Sellafield says a number of improvements have been made, in the monitoring and disposing of waste, since then.

Mr Berlin said: “There is no doubt that these are welcomed changes. But because we are dealing with radioactivity we submit these should have checked beforehand.”

He added: “Complacency and negligence was apparent from the beginning, from the procurement of the monitors. There was a considerable potential for harm.”

Eleanor Sanderson, for Sellafield, said the company was “disappointed” by the incident. She said two monitors were set up and Sellafield assumed that the first machine had been configured, to show how radioactive waste was, if at all.

She said numerous checks were carried out, however Sellafield accepted there was an “insufficient testing of bags at higher activities”.

She said the company admitted that the root cause was failings in “ordering and testing of the machine”.

Since the incident, changes have been made to ensure numerous checks are carried out on waste before it is disposed of.

“This was not a reckless act, it is a regrettable error,” she added.

Magistrates said: “We are taking into account that the risk was low. But we feel that this is a risk that should not have been there. The checks that have been put in place now should have been there in the first place.”

Ian Parker, nuclear regulations manager for the EA, said: “Our overriding aim in regulating the nuclear industry is to protect people and the environment from the release of radioactive wastes into the environment.

“We have carried out a thorough investigation in partnership with the ONR and have already required Sellafield Ltd to take action to ensure this does not happen again.”

Ian Barlow from the ONR, added: “We require the nuclear industry to control its hazards and ensure it has effective procedures in place for transporting and disposing of all forms of waste.Where necessary, we will use enforcement action to protect people and society from the hazards of the nuclear industry.”

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