The condition of two open-air storage ponds built in the 1950s and 60s at the Sellafield nuclear site in Cumbria, England is well known and well understood, with work going on around the clock, seven days a week to ensure they remain safe and secure, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) has said.
In a statement released in response to media reports about the condition of the two ponds, which contain used fuel from first generation Magnox reactors, the NDA said both the NDA and site management company Sellafield Ltd continue to be open and transparent about progress and programmes in place to address associated hazards and risks.
“Since the inception of the NDA in 2005, we have recognised the vital task of tackling the open-air storage ponds at Sellafield,” the statement said. “These legacy facilities represent our number one decommissioning priority.”
The Guardian newspaper reported last week that previously unseen pictures of two storage ponds containing “hundreds of highly radioactive fuel rods” show cracked concrete, seagulls bathing in the water and weeds growing around derelict machinery.
The newspaper quoted a spokesman for Sellafield Ltd. saying the ponds will not be cleaned up for decades, despite concern that they are in a dangerous state and could cause a large release of radioactive material if they are allowed to deteriorate further.
The NDA said it spends £1.8bn a year at Sellafield – two thirds of its annual budget. Of this £1.8bn, one third is spent on the storage ponds.
The ponds are the first generation Magnox storage pond, where construction began in the 1950s, and the pile fuel storage pond. Construction of the pile fuel storage pond started in 1948 to receive fuel from the Windscale Pile reactors. The facility was modified in the mid-1950s to allow the receipt of spent Magnox fuel from the Calder Hall reactors.
More than 100 tonnes of contaminated equipment has been removed from the pile fuel storage pond. “Fuel is being removed continually from that facility and we expect it to be empty and ready to be drained of water within five years,” the NDA said.
By the end of this financial year, large amounts of radioactive sludge will begin to be pumped out of the first generation Magnox storage pond. “Work goes on every day at this pond to prepare it for the removal of its contents,” the NDA said.
The pond’s overhead crane, which had been out of action since the 1990s, has been fixed and is being used again. Underwater vehicles are being used to pick up spilt fuel rods from the pond floor.
Progress is also continuing on building the new facilities which will treat and store the material once it’s taken out of the ponds.