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Accident at Sellafield would have "no health effects in Ireland"

Department of the Environment releases report from independent experts on risk to Ireland of a radioactive leak at the Cumbrian nuclear site as it is being decommissioned.

An overview of the Sellafield site in 2008 when the Irish and British governments decided to launch a joint risk assessment.
An overview of the Sellafield site in 2008 when the Irish and British governments decided to launch a joint risk assessment.
Image: British Nuclear Group/PA Wire

A REPORT FROM an independent panel of international experts has claimed that a radioactive leak at Sellafield would have “no observable health effects in Ireland”.

The team, which includes nuclear physicists, chemists and engineers, was commissioned by the Irish government to make a risk assessment of what would happen if there were an incident at the nuclear site. Sellafield lies about 180km from Ireland’s coastline.

The Department of Environment, Community and Local Government has just released the report detailing the findings of the group.

The department says that the report is based on “previously unavailable information” and that it was an “objective and scientifically robust assessment of the risks to Ireland from Sellafield”. It is what is called a Probalistic Risk Assessment (PRA). It took into account many possible scenarios, including airplane crashes, terrorist attacks, fires, human error and natural events such as earthquakes or meteor strikes.

Environment Minister Phil Hogan said the report would be used to help form Irish government policies relating to Sellafield and nuclear policy in the UK. He did say, however, that Ireland should remain “vigilant” over Sellafield to be assured that the work being undertaken there to decommission the site is safe. He reaffirmed Ireland’s status as a non-nuclear country.

These are some of the key findings in the report:

  • The release of radioactive material from the Sellafield site or its nearby Low-Level Waste Repository (LLWR) would “result in no observable health effects in Ireland”.
  • The research team investigated three of the most likely scenarios, each of which would result in radioactive materials ending up in the high atmosphere with the potential to be dispersed over a “significant distance”. They found that:
The analysis showed that some radioactive materials could reach Ireland but at levels far below the dose levels that could cause observable health effects and well below the level of background radiation people normally receive each year. For all other PRA scenarios, doses would be much lower. While radioactive materials from the release could be detected using sensitive measurement equipment, the levels would not be enough to cause observable health effects in Ireland.
  • However, a severe incident at either Sellafield or the LLWR could “create significant socioeconomic impacts in Ireland”. These would include a negative impact on tourism and exports of Irish seafood and agricultural products over a general fear – even if unfounded – over their safety.
  • If sea levels were to rise further and coastal storms result in the contents of the LLWR leaking into the Irish Sea, the report found that the danger of radiation would be “barely detectable”. By the time any material  reached the coast of Ireland, it would have been diluted by seawater, currents and also by time as this is a very long-term scenario.
  • This is the status of Sellafield at the moment: “a collection of facilities that process and store used fuel from nuclear reactors and other radioactive materials”. The LLWR “stores low-level radioactive waste from all over the UK”. The reactors which previously produced plutonium for nuclear weapons or generated electricity “have all been shut down and are being decommissioned and dismantled”.

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The National Audit Office in the UK said earlier this month that Sellafield posed “significant risks to people and the environment” in Cumbria. The NAO accused the site operators of failing to maintain many of its 1,400 buildings to a modern standard and warned that progress in sorting out the high-risk ponds and silos of the 1950s and 1960s was not moving swiftly enough.

The Sellafield Thorp reprocessing plant is to close in 2018. The Mox plant there closed down last year. A target of cleaning up the entire Sellafield site has been set for 2020 and €84bn earmarked for the decommissioning works.

This graphic is from today’s report to the Department of the Environment on the risk posed by various incident scenarios at Sellafield:

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