It is difficult to determine whether it’s the result of Halloween or an approaching Bonfire Night, but there is something suspiciously spooky about Sellafield’s explanation of the recent incidents involving the Bomb Squad being called to the site late on a dark Friday night to deal with hazardous chemicals. Whatever it was that prompted the evacuation of workers from the site’s Analytical Services Laboratory, throwing a 100 metre cordon around the facility and shouting for the explosive experts, remains something of a mystery.
Such procedures may well, as Sellafield puts it, ‘be in line with best practice and established procedures’ as per the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health regulations (COSHH). But they singularly fail to explain why a batch of canisters, containing no longer used chemical solvents including tetrahydrofuran, should suddenly turn rogue and require immediate zapping by explosive experts. They had, after all, been stored safely in the lab for the last 25 years. Perhaps the canisters were corroding or leaking. Perhaps the chemicals were unexpectedly found to be in an unstable condition that posed a risk of explosion and fire when crystalized and exposed to air – a commonplace outcome with tetrahydrofuran in labs worldwide as any website trawl will testify. Such details have not of course been disclosed by Sellafield but, whatever the cause for the panic, the chemicals were removed from the facility and placed in specially dug trenches somewhere on site and blown up the following afternoon by the experts. The detonations were audible outside the site.
But just when locals thought all was done and dusted and that it was safe to go out again, the Bomb Squad was summoned back almost immediately and now appears to have taken up semi-permanent residence at Sellafield and has been busy blowing up more chemicals. Many observers will find it difficult to buy into Sellafield’s suggestion that the presence of explosive experts at the site is nothing out of the ordinary (a response to an already submitted FoI on how many times such visits have occurred in the last few years could well kill off that pretence) and that such visits are not only confined to Sellafield but to schools as well. Surely, the odds of unearthing any school store-cupboard inventory that comes anywhere near close to matching that of Sellafield must be as remote as the site’s statements of the ongoing incident actually ringing true.
Whilst the truth behind what lead to the bomb squad’s urgent presence at Sellafield may or may not ever be disclosed, the status of the Analytical Services Laboratory (ASL) itself could have been reason enough for Sellafield to skate over the details of the facility – simply referring to it as ‘historical laboratories’. The actuality, as they say, is somewhat more disturbing, for the ASL facility is housed in one of the oldest buildings on site – a throwback to the old Windscale nuclear weapons era. Built in 1951, ASL is located in the site’s highly controlled Separation Area which houses a cheek-by-jowl hotchpotch of old reprocessing plant and constructionally-suspect and high hazard storage ponds and silos.
Some 50 of ASL’s original 150 individual laboratories are believed to be still in use, with those that have been closed over the years remaining under a care and maintenance regime. All sounds reasonable you may say – until an Assessment by the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) in June this year spilled some proverbial beans – or perhaps more appropriately opened a can(ister) or two of chemical worms.
Describing ASL as a ‘relatively high risk’ facility, ONR confirms that the laboratories hold a ‘considerable radiological inventory’ that ‘has potentially high off-site consequences in the event of a major accident’. So, clearly not the ideal place for a chemical explosion or fire. Whilst it can be argued there is no such thing on the Sellafield site as an ideal place for any incident, the claustrophobic confines of the Separation Area, where manoeuvrability of emergency services and evacuation of personnel is hampered, must rank as the least ideal.
True, there are plans to empty all ASL’s current laboratories of their chemical and radioactive inventories. Under the Replacement Analytical Project (RAP), the materials and the laboratory work of ASL is to be transferred to the central laboratory of the newer National Nuclear Laboratory which resides in the leafier suburbs of the Sellafield site and must be refitted to take on the work. The problem, as ONR’s Assessment points out, is that this transfer is not going to be completed overnight and ASL is going to have to soldier on gamely to at least 2025 – and possibly 2028. Given its age, contents and attraction to the bomb squad, a further decade of the use of a facility described by one of the managers involved in the replacement project as being ‘in terminal decline’ is of significant concern and raises the question as to how, in this day of high technology and innovation (with Sellafield claiming to be at ‘the cutting edge’) alternative arrangements were not made as a priority for this Halloween House of Horrors long before now.
That the bomb squad, first called to the site on the evening of Friday 21st October, is still in explosive mode almost a fortnight later is itself a giveaway to the extent of this pyrotechnical problem posed by ASL and its contents. Once the bonfires of November 5th have died down, observers will be keen to see what arises from the ashes and from the official investigation into this latest Sellafield saga.