Following the discovery last night (30/31 January) of raised levels of radioactivity by an air sampler located at a northern point on Sellafield’s perimeter fence, site operator Sellafield Ltd issued a number of mixed messages this morning 31st January relating to the discovery and which lead to local, national and international anxieties about the scale and implications of ‘the incident’. Those concerns were enhanced by the draconian step already taken by Sellafield Ltd to order all non-essential staff not to come to work today – an initiative usually employed only to cover major accident, severe weather event or loss of electricity and water supplies to the site.
In the event, the company stated later in the day that the elevated readings related to naturally occurring radon gas, and not therefore to any of the site’s commercial plant or storage facilities which were all operating normally. An investigation into the spike of radon – measured at just one of twenty air samplers around the site’s perimeter – has been launched. Whilst such spikes can result from earthquakes and tremors, the British Geological Survey has reported no such event taking place locally in recent days.
As its own worst enemy in matters of public trust, Sellafield has been guilty on numerous occasions in the past of downplaying an incident as posing ‘no risk to the public or workforce’, only to see the incident subsequently escalate – along the lines of Chernobyl and Fukishima – to a major nuclear accident.
Against that background, Sellafield Ltd’s assuring announcements earlier this morning, when the extent and cause of the elevated air sampler reading was still unknown, did little to mitigate public concern. The claim that there was no risk to the public (ie ‘offsite’) from what was described as ‘an operational condition on the Sellafield Site’ was clearly untenable given that the then unknown radioactivity would clearly have been present offsite also – the perimeter fence being no barrier.
Further, the additional statement that the raised radioactivity levels at the fence were not sufficiently high to trigger official action to be taken by the company cannot be reconciled with the urgency with which non-essential staff were told to stay away from the site – an extremely unusual action in itself and one which predictably resulted in unnecessary traffic chaos on West Cumbrian roads as workers, ignorant of the order to stay at home, arrived at the site and were turned away.
Sellafield Ltd has stated that its investigation into the incident will include determining why the radon spike had occurred and whether the sensitivity of the lone air sampler to have picked up the raised levels was suspect.