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February 24, 2009

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Tank had been leaking radioactive waste for 14 years

Nuclear power-station operator Magnox has been hit with a £400,000

penalty for failing to spot a vessel that had been leaking liquid

radioactive waste since the early 1990s.

The £250,000 fine, with £150,000 costs, is the highest for a prosecution brought by the Environment Agency in nine years.

Magnox Electric Ltd (formerly Nuclear Electric plc) was found guilty on 6 February of three offences under the Radioactive Substances Act 1993, for failing to carry out any inspections of a sump — a type of holding tank — at the former Bradwell Nuclear Power Station, in Southminster, Essex.

The company was also sentenced for two further counts under the Act, to which it had pleaded guilty at an earlier hearing. These offences referred to its failure to maintain the tank, located at the site’s decontamination bay, between 1 January 1993 and 18 December 2002, and from 18 December 2002 to 4 February 2004, when the leak was detected.

Although the downwards leak presented little risk to the health and safety of workers or the public, or to the local environment, the high fine reflected a similar failure by the company in 2001 to maintain plant. Passing sentence at Chelmsford Crown Court on 17 February, Judge Peter Fenn said he wanted to make sure that the message of good maintenance and design of apparatus got through to the operator.

The court heard that the leak was discovered by staff working to clear sludge from the sump. When full of water, levels in the sump fell; when empty, the tank was backfilling by a couple of inches a day. Once the firm realised there was a problem, it immediately brought in a pump, and all liquid and sludge was carefully removed.

Prosecuting for the Environment Agency, Mark Harris told the court that prior to the work to clear sludge, no inspection of the sump had been carried out and no tests had been undertaken to check the integrity of the sump, which had originally been built in 1976. Judge Fenn added that he was surprised that the structure had not been checked in 2001, when it was upgraded.

On detecting the leak, Magnox alerted the Agency and the HSE’s Nuclear Installations Inspectorate, who embarked on a joint inspection of the site and surrounding area. The Environment Agency, which told the court that it inspects the environment, including soil and water monitoring, outside a site’s boundaries every month, eventually took the lead in the investigation. Sampling tests carried out by the Agency showed that the leak had been largely contained.

Magnox conducted a review of all other sumps on the site, which found them fit for purpose. It also maintained that all the contamination took place between 1988 and 1990, but an Environment Agency expert stated that scum marks on the wall of the sump indicated that leakage occurred over many years.

Phil Heaton, team leader of the Agency’s Nuclear Regulation Group, told SHP that the case was highly technical, and some of the investigation reports were not completed until 2007. It eventually laid charges that year.

Asked why the regulator had failed to spot the leak, he insisted: It is not the regulator’s responsibility to pick up leaks. It is entirely the operator’s responsibility.”

Commenting on the case, Magnox site director, Dick Sexton, said: “It is important to remember that the charges in this case cover a period going back almost 20 years, when the Bradwell Site was run and operated by very different legal entities to those who have responsibility for managing and operating it today.
 
“Since 2004, very significant improvements have been made to the running of the site, and the sump in question has been replaced by one which, by the Environment Agency’s own admission, now meets exacting modern standards.”

Reflecting on the potential wider political implications, Heaton said: “We do not believe this case undermines the Government’s nuclear new-build programme, but there are some lessons to be learnt. The key lessons are that operators must maintain plant, and it is much easier if a sump is above ground level for visibility. Good maintenance procedures and design of plant will be incorporated into the new-build programme.”

He added that the decommissioning of sites was also underpinned by robust procedures. “Our bore-hole monitoring and environmental sampling showed there was no loss of radioactivity outside of the site boundary, and it would have been picked up if it been a more serious incident.”

Image shows Bradwell Nuclear Power Station,

Copyright: Magnox Electric Ltd

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