Amid all the hype surrounding the closure of the former Bradwell nuclear power station, Peter Banks reminds us of past problems, present concerns and future uncertainties surrounding the plant.
BANNG Column for Regional Life – January 2019
‘Safe and Quiescent’
Bradwell A ceased generating power in 2002 and, after more than 15 years decommissioning, has entered the phase of Care and Maintenance. And there is no doubt that the operators have, on the whole, successfully completed a very complex task costing £1bn so far and an estimated £2bn when finally completed.
The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority and Magnox repeatedly claim that it is now ‘safe and quiescent’. This suggests that it is ‘in a state or period of inactivity or dormancy’, but that is far from reality. Throughout its history Bradwell has been beset with incidents. It is now in a state of suspended animation and the tricky problems of final site clearance have been left for future generations to manage – if they can.
From the very beginning Bradwell encountered problems. For example, its output had to be down-rated from 300MWe to 246MWe initially because of the risk of bolts corroding within the highly inaccessible parts of the reactor. Bradwell operated at this level, below its design specification, throughout its 40-year life.
During Bradwell’s operating lifetime there was a number of issues and incidents which were kept from the public’s gaze. Perhaps the most notorious was the undisclosed leak (which gained Bradwell the nickname the ‘Tritium Teabag’) from a sump that continued for 28 years before it was revealed in 2004. The operator was found guilty of failing to maintain systems and allowing unauthorised discharges of radioactive waste. In another incident, in 1999, it was reported that a security guard was found to have hacked into computers.
The later stages of decommissioning witnessed the extremely expensive and unfortunate fuel element debris (FED) dissolution experiment which resulted in discharges of radioactivity and heavy metals into the Blackwater estuary – not the ‘aqueous discharges of a clean salt solution’ the public was led to believe would be the case. The Station Manager recently commented that ‘the work hasn’t been without its challenges’. BANNG fought against this experiment revealing that the discharge was totally unnecessary since the waste could be accommodated wholly on site without the need for dissolution. Eventually the Intermediate-Level Waste (ILW) was re-classified and only one-third was dissolved. Because of the problems experienced at Bradwell, the process will not be used elsewhere, as originally intended.
The reactor buildings are now completely enclosed in shiny aluminum cladding. However, contained within those sparkly boxes (that have now been assigned the totally inappropriate description of ‘SafeStore’) are the highly radioactive graphite reactor cores, in passive store but hardly dormant. The plan is to leave them in this state and deal with them at the end of the century, a process described as ‘deferred decommissioning’. The cores present a risk which will be much greater when, and if, attempts are made to dismantle and remove them.
Nearby, on the site, is the ISF (Interim Storage Facility) for ILW containing highly radioactive debris and other materials arising from dismantling. This store was intended for Bradwell waste only but in 2016 Essex County Council lifted a planning restriction so that waste from Sizewell and Dungeness could be sent to and housed within the ISF. This means that Bradwell is now a regional store and still receiving wastes from two other sites.
Then there is the cooling pond to the east of the reactor buildings which received spent fuel rods and associated structures before their removal to Sellafield. It was planned to level this whole area but during the course of decommissioning it was found to be highly contaminated. Consequently, another ‘SafeStore’ building to house the whole facility has been erected which will also trap any radiation during the 80 years of deferred decommissioning.
It can hardly be said that Bradwell has been safe and quiescent at any stage during its lifetime so far. Yet it has been a flagship for the accelerated decommissioning process
and a pioneer in the use of techniques, some of which have been successful while others have been expensive failures. Some of the processes tested in this ‘first time ever’ scenario have been acknowledged by the NDA to have been deeply flawed and will never be used elsewhere.
So what prospect does the future hold? Back in the early days after Bradwell A’s closure, promises were made that the site would be returned to its natural state within 25 years or so, to a safe (and quiescent!) area with little sign of its former industrial land use. Now this is unlikely to happen, if at all, until the turn of the century and who can believe this will be possible even then? Although further clearance will occur, the long-term prospect is for the ageing reactor cores and ILW to be left on a vulnerable site in deteriorating conditions.
Overall, it must be said, the celebrations of the successful conclusion of Bradwell’s decommissioning are premature and presumptuous. Within its own terms the process has been a technical success. We should expect nothing less. But, it is by no means completed and the remaining radioactivity on the site will continue to pose risks to people and the environment for decades to come.