Investigations have been launched into how radioactive waste ended up in a transport container at Hunterston nuclear power station in breach of environmental rules.
The Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) has disclosed that unauthorised radioactive “debris” was found in a supposedly empty fuel flask returned to the North Ayrshire plant from the Sellafield nuclear complex in Cumbria.
Critics have accused the nuclear industry of “mismanagement”, and reiterated calls for Hunterston’s two reactors to stay shut. The industry said that there was “no risk to the environment or the public”.
The Ferret reported on 9 March that Hunterston had breached radiation safety rules and suffered five other problems with its safety systems. The UK government’s safety watchdog, the Office for Nuclear Regulation, said that Hunterston had “failed to adequately account for” radioactive materials last October.
When Hunterston B nuclear power station was operational, highly radioactive fuel burnt in its two reactors was regularly transported to Sellafield for storage. One reactor ran for less than four months in 2019, but both are now shut awaiting safety assessments of proliferating cracks in their graphite cores.
The large flasks used for the spent fuel shipments are meant to be returned empty from Sellafield to Hunterston. But on 23 January EDF told Sepa that “it had found debris in a fuel flask received from Sellafield.”
Sepa reported the incident to a Hunterston stakeholder meeting in Seamill near West Kilbride on 5 March. The debris was radioactive waste which Hunterston was “not authorised” to receive under the Environmental Authorisations (Scotland) Regulations, Sepa said.
“Although there appears to be no environmental impact from the receipt of this waste, it represents a contravention of the station’s permit.”
EDF said it reported discovering the radioactive debris “promptly” to Sepa. “The material which arrived at Hunterston B in the bottom of a fuel flask from Sellafield remained safely in the flask while on site and did not cause any environmental harm,” added an EDF spokesperson.
“The arrival of the material means there has been a non-compliance with the site’s environmental permit and EDF is working with the regulator and Sellafield to establish how this situation can be managed in the future.”
Sellafield, which is owned and run by the UK government, had also informed regulators of the incident. “An empty transport flask, that was being returned to Hunterston B site in Scotland from Sellafield, was found to contain a small amount of graphite debris,” said a Sellafield spokesperson.
“The flask is specifically designed to safely transport spent fuel and there was no risk to the environment or the public from this transport. We are investigating the cause of this mis-consignment.”
The amount, level and type of radioactivity found have not been disclosed. According to EDF, the material did not come from the core of Hunterston reactor four while it was operating between August and December 2019.
These incidents are constant reminders that the problems with nuclear energy just aren’t worth it. Ross Greer, Green MSP
Friends of the Earth Scotland called for Hunterston’s reactors never to be restarted. “Hunterston’s radioactive woes continue to mount with another episode of mismanagement within the nuclear industry,” said the environmental group’s director, Dr Richard Dixon.
“Nuclear power was supposed to be a high-tech, space age industry run by expert but recent performance makes it very hard to think that the industry is anything but dangerous.”
The Edinburgh-based nuclear consultant and critic, Peter Roche, urged Sepa to complete its investigation as quickly as possible. “If it’s getting into fuel flasks it could be getting elsewhere,” he said.
“We can’t have Sellafield accidentally distributing radioactive debris around the country.”
According to the Scottish Greens, Sellafield had some “serious questions” to answer. “Hunterston has no shortage of safety issues of its own without other nuclear site operators adding to the problems,” said the party’s West Scotland MSP, Ross Greer.
“These incidents are constant reminders that the problems with nuclear energy just aren’t worth it, especially with the abundance of clean, renewable alternative sources here in Scotland. Decommissioning Hunterston will provide jobs for its workforce for years to come.”
A spokesperson for the Scottish Environment Protection Agency said: “We are aware of an issue relating to debris found in a fuel flask at Hunterston B power station, which appears to be in contravention of site permit conditions. We are investigating the matter, but are confident there is no risk to public health.”
The Ferret revealed on 1 March that the Ministry of Defence (MoD) was planning to increase discharges of radioactive waste into the Firth of Clyde by up to 50 times. The waste comes from the reactors that drive the submarines based at Faslane and from the processing of Trident nuclear warheads at Coulport in Argyll.
The MoD plans are the subject of a public consultation being conducted by Sepa. The consultation is due to end on 13 March.