Sellafield nuclear plant is understaffed and dangerous BBC alleges

Sellafield nuclear plant is being operated dangerously by its workers as the nuclear material is handled improperly, according to an upcoming BBC Panorama documentary.

It is alleged that parts of the nuclear facility regularly have too few staff to operate safely and radioactive plutonium and uranium have been stored in plastic bottles.

The BBC said the investigation was prompted by a former senior manager turned whistleblower who was worried about conditions at the site in Cumbria.

The company that runs Sellafield has said the site is safe and has been improved with significant investment in recent years, the BBC reported.

The whistleblower is reported to have told the programme that his biggest fear was a fire in one of the nuclear waste silos or in one of the processing plants.

"If there is a fire there it could generate a plume of radiological waste that will go across Western Europe," he told Panorama.

Further allegations in the programme relate to staffing, with the whistleblower saying Sellafield often did not have enough people on duty to meet minimum safety levels.

In August last year, workers at the site carried out a number of strikes over two separate disputes relating to pay and health and safety. 

Responding to the BBC, the head of nuclear safety at Sellafield, Dr Rex Strong, denied that operating below these levels was dangerous.

He said: "You make alternative arrangements, so the things that have to be done get done. Facilities are shut down if we're not able to operate them in the way that we want to.

"Safety is our priority and we are managing a very complex site which has got a great deal of hazardous radioactive materials in it."

Sellafield said in a statement given to the BBC that plutonium and uranium samples are ‘kept securely’ and that ‘to imply that such material is inappropriately managed is simply not true’.

Shadow energy secretary Barry Gardiner said: "These revelations about the safety practices at Sellafield must be addressed in detail immediately by the Secretary of State. It is simply unacceptable to breach safe staffing levels.

"This puts the public at an unacceptable level of risk. Sellafield has been heavily criticised by the National Audit Office for its spiralling costs. Shockingly it appears that despite the vast amounts of public money spent there, its safety record is severely lacking.

"It's deeply worrying that these breaches in safety have only come to light from an industry insider. The safety of our nuclear industry should not have to rely on whistleblowers. The Tory government needs to answer why the inspection regime failed to pick up on this catalogue of failures.

"The government must carry out a thorough investigation into the safety practices at Sellafield. It must be able to ensure that the public is not being put in danger."

In March 2015, a system was used to remove radioactive sludge from a storage pond near the Sellafield nuclear site. The pond needed to be emptied of 1500 cubic metres of radioactive sludge so that it could be processed in an advanced storage facility. 

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