Big fine for waste leaks

18 February 2009

A leaky sump at the Bradwell nuclear power plant in the UK will cost operator Magnox South some £250,000 in fines, while court costs take the total penalty to £400,000 ($567,000).



The Bradwell site hosts two shutdown Magnox gas-cooled reactors currently undergoing decommissioning. Having produced about 125 MWe each from 1962 to 2002 they are considered a legacy from the UK's national nuclear power development program and as such are owned by the government's Nuclear Decommissioning Authority. Areas adjacent to the site, about 45 kilometres east of London, are among those being considered for new reactors.


Bradwell's current site director, Dick Sexton, wrote in a letter to local people: "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."

Magnox discovered the leak in 2004 and voluntarily disclosed it to safety authorities. The company should have made regular checks to ensure the integrity of the holding tank but did not do so, even when it was upgraded in 2001. The company was convicted on three counts of improperly disposing of radioactive waste, covering periods from March 1990 to February 2004.


The leak within the decontamination bay was never detected outside the site boundaries despite regular monitoring by the UK Environment Agency and "did not cause any risk to local people or the environment," the agency said. Nuclear regulators the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate had decided to take no action on the matter, and the Environment Agency waited three years before bringing the court case in 2007.


However, the agency yesterday celebrated the verdict, which "sends a clear message to the nuclear industry that we require the highest standards of operation at all such sites and will take firm action - even if the environment beyond a site's boundaries is not affected."


The leak occurred from a sump used to collect waste water and other aqueous waste which arose from work in the decontamination bay. It came to light when staff working to clear out sludge from the sump noticed that water levels would fall if the container was full, and would rise when it was empty. The sump was immediately cleaned out, but investigations brought to light that it had not been inspected or tested for some time.


The cause of the leak was said by the Environment Agency to be a "combination of poor design when the sump was modified in 1976 and the lack of any routine inspection and maintenance afterwards until the leak was discovered." In court, Magnox maintained that all the contamination occurred between 1998 and 1990, but the Environment Agency did not agree, and its witness said there was evidence of leakage over "many years."