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Sellafield nuclear waste storage safety limit relaxed following accident via The Guardian

Amount of radioactive waste that can be kept in tanks allowed to breach legal limits to help cope with backlog caused by an accident in November 2013

Safety limits on the storage of some of the world’s most dangerous nuclear wastes at Sellafield in Cumbria have been relaxed after an accident knocked out a treatment plant.

The government’s safety watchdog, the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR), has permitted the private company that runs Sellafield to breach legal restrictions on the amount of hot, high-level radioactive waste that can be kept in tanks. The limits are likely to be exceeded by up to 350 tonnes between April 2014 and July 2016.

Critics accused ONR of breaking their promises and putting Sellafield’s profits before safety. But ONR insisted there was “minimal hazard increase”, while Sellafield said it put safety first.

The waste storage limits, imposed in 2001, were meant to reduce stocks to below 5,500 tonnes of uranium equivalent by July 2015. The aim was to minimise the risk of a disaster spreading a plume of potentially lethal radioactive contamination over the UK and Ireland – officially regarded as Sellafield’s “worst credible accident”.

The liquid waste comes from Britain’s nuclear power stations and generates significant amounts of heat. It has to be constantly cooled and stirred to prevent it from overheating.

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In a redacted report, ONR accepted that breaching the waste storage limits for 16 months would lead to a “modest increase in hazard”. But it concluded that temporarily shutting the reprocessing plant would be more risky, and so has replaced the limits with a weaker “operating rule” administered by Sellafield.

Gordon Thompson, executive director of the US Institute for Resource and Security Studies and an expert on Sellafield, pointed out that the site’s liquid high-level wastes were “one of the world’s major concentrations of radiological hazard”. He accused ONR of breaking a promise made in 2001 to halt reprocessing if necessary to ensure that waste stocks were reduced.

Reprocessing fuel from Britain’s newer reactors was “unnecessary, uneconomic, and hazardous,” he argued. “It compounds the waste problem, threatens international security, and never should have begun.”

Martin Forward, from the local anti-nuclear group, Cumbrians Opposed to a Radioactive Environment (CORE), attacked ONR for “its apparent willingness to put Sellafield’s business interests before those of health and safety”. Public confidence in the regulator’s competence would “sink to an all-time low”, he claimed.

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