Even before Storm Desmond had finished wreaking havoc in Cumbria and Scotland, the nuclear industry took it upon itself to transport a cargo of plutonium fuel from Dounreay, Caithness to Sellafield on a rail network already highly compromised by extensive flooding, landslide and signalling failures.
The first of a series of consignments of so-called ‘exotic fuels’ – consisting of unirradiated plutonium fuel from Dounreay’s Prototype Fast Reactor (PFR) – arrived at Sellafield on Monday 7th December, hauled by the NDA’s wholly owned subsidiary Direct Rail Services and under high levels of security.
For the transport to have completed its 400 mile journey at Sellafield on 7th December, departure from the northern tip of mainland Scotland must have begun the previous day, the 6th December. On that day, few in Cumbria and Scotland – particularly around the Carlisle and Border areas – will have been in any doubt as to the full extent of the mayhem and destruction inflicted on those areas by the storm. This included a crippling of mainline and minor rail systems which had drawn the warning from Network Rail’s Route Managing Director – on 6th December – that “the unprecedented amount of rainfall and high winds have taken a significant toll on the railway… North of Carlisle station, we have to wait for eight feet of water to recede before we can carry out extensive safety checks and repairs – including rebuilding a host of complex electrical and signalling equipment which is currently underwater. We have a lot of work to do to ensure the railway is safe and able to be used’.
CORE’s spokesman Martin Forwood said today:
“It beggars belief that the decision to risk the plutonium fuel transport was taken despite the widely trailed storm evidence and rail warnings. We condemn the perverse decision as being dangerously irresponsible and as a blatant breach of the stringent safety and security rules required for such transports. Those responsible have shown a level of incompetence that verges on criminal and should be weeded out so that public and rail safety is not similarly endangered again. If any public confidence at all in such transports is to be salvaged, answers on the decision making must be given and lessons learned”.
Whilst the West Coast Main Line was fractured between Preston and Scotland – until its official re-opening on 8th December – the West Cumbrian coastal route operated by Northern Rail (and DRS) was also compromised. Tests to determine whether services on the southern section (Barrow to Workington) could be resumed were only scheduled for the morning of Monday 7th December – the day the nuclear transport arrived at Sellafield. The northern section (Workington to Carlisle) was, according to Northern Rail, not expected to re-open until Tuesday 8th December because of significant flood, landslide and wind damage.
CORE is raising a number of questions on the Dounreay transport with the Ramsden Dock Terminal Liaison Group which meets in Barrow on Monday 14th December. The Group is operated by International Nuclear Services (INS) who oversee nuclear transports on behalf of its owner the NDA. DRS is also a Group member. Among the storm and safety questions CORE is asking what level of consideration was given, under the conditions, to the potential for emergency services to respond to a rail incident involving the transport when the capacity of those local and national services were likely to be fully stretched by civil rescue operations.
The plutonium fuel is one of three categories of exotic fuels and materials held at Dounreay. Described by the NDA as unirradiated plutonium bearing fuel, a total of some 13 tonnes – incorporating around 2 tonnes of plutonium – is due to be transported to Sellafield over the next few years.