Despite the efforts to stop them, discharges of radioactivity into the Blackwater estuary from the dissolution of fuel element debris (FED) began in late June and were planned to continue for eighteen months. At least that was the plan – in fact, no sooner had the discharges begun than they were halted in July because of technical problems and have not yet recommenced. BANNG believes the project must now be abandoned.
Chair of the Blackwater Against New Nuclear Group (BANNG), Andy Blowers, said ‘The dissolution should never have been started in the first place given the threat it poses to the estuary. The fact that it hasn’t worked properly provides the opportunity to call it a day and provide a safer solution’.
No public statement was made about the outage and silence prevailed over several months during which it was fondly believed the discharges were occurring on a daily basis. It was only in late October, at an event in the West Midlands run by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA), that Andy Blowers found out – quite by chance – that all was not well with the dissolution project, when the Chief Executive of the NDA happened to mention it was experiencing what he called ‘challenges’.
‘The silence over the outage is an outrage’ claimed Barry Turner, BANNG’s Vice-Chair. ‘This does nothing to bolster the public’s confidence and creates an atmosphere of mistrust. It is incomprehensible that neither the NDA nor Magnox, who are committed to a policy of openness and public dialogue, said nothing despite being fully aware of the public’s concerns and opposition to the dissolution process. BANNG had held a packed Public Meeting at the MICA on 23 June and, a month later, the NDA, Magnox and the Environment Agency (EA) went to the trouble of holding a ‘Drop-In’ Session in West Mersea to attempt to allay the public’s fears’.
And nothing was said when BANNG met with the EA on 5 August, when it was clearly understood by both sides that the discharges were under way.
It was not until earlier in December, at a meeting of the Bradwell Local Community Liaison Committee (LCLC), where BANNG representatives Charles Clark and Graham Farley pressed their concerns that a full, public explanation was given. The Bradwell Site Manager said that the outage was ‘planned’ but that there was disappointment that it was lasting so long. It was still, however, intended to restart dissolution towards the end of the year.
This suggests more than a trivial problem. The Chief Executive of the NDA had described the problem as challenging. And at a second meeting between BANNG and the EA on 21 November the problems at the plant were described as ‘significant’. This all seems rather more than a planned outage. In fact, six months will have been lost, taking the project into 2016 by which time Bradwell should have entered its Care and Maintenance phase.
So why are the site still pressing ahead with this failed technology? The answer, it seems, has all to do with cost and face saving and little to do with environmental protection. The nitric acid dissolution process was foisted on Bradwell as a cost-effective, fast process that would be proved to work and transferred elsewhere. In fact, it has turned out to be an expensive scheme and the new site managers are turning to other, cheaper and safer alternatives to install at other sites, including storage, which BANNG has advocated all along. Meanwhile, to avoid even bigger financial losses, it is planned that the discharges into the Blackwater will soon be under way once more.
Varrie Blowers, Secretary of BANNG, thinks there is an element of irony in the situation. ‘The NDA promoted FED dissolution at specific sites as the best way “to reduce overall costs, environmental impacts and timescales of decommissioning”. Since the process is only now being used at Bradwell none of the NDA’s aims will be met. It could be said that the taxpayers of the Blackwater have helped to pay towards the £75 million plus cost of this experimental plant in order to have unnecessary radioactive discharges pumped into the estuary where they work, sail and swim. But this expensive experiment has failed and, as with so many ideas in the nuclear industry, the costs have overrun. This represents another nuclear rip-off for the British taxpayer. BANNG has maintained that the vulnerable Blackwater estuary was never a location at which to carry out FED dissolution. And now to learn that it will be the only location where this process takes place, while storage will be implemented elsewhere, is galling. We demand that the dissolution process should not re-start’.