The Guardian view on Sellafield scandals: ministers must put public safety before secrecy

<span>Photograph: Bloomberg/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Bloomberg/Getty Images

There will be many reasons why Britain’s energy secretary, Claire Coutinho, went public with her unease about “serious and concerning” allegations raised by the Guardian this week over cybersecurity, site safety and a “toxic” workplace culture in Sellafield. There was the “longstanding nature” of the matters in question, raising questions over the site’s management. Neighbouring governments have had serious concerns. The plant holds enough plutonium to potentially make thousands of atomic bombs of the size that obliterated Japan’s Nagasaki in 1945. By asking for assurances from its state-controlled owner and its regulator, Ms Coutinho emphasises that effective governance of Britain’s nuclear industry is a critical issue.

This is a sensible response to these scandals. The cabinet minister is right to publicise her concerns about a hazardous industry that can inflict catastrophic environmental damage and deaths. She has sent a helpful signal about valuing public safety over secrecy. Sellafield in Cumbria, and about 20 smaller sites, need to be monitored and protected, as the waste stored can remain radioactive for tens of thousands of years. Yet the nuclear establishment is at best opaque. Britain’s postwar development of nuclear weapons grew alongside the construction of nuclear energy reactors. The industry’s military connections have influenced its approaches to corporate governance for the worse.

There is an urgent problem of nuclear waste disposal. Britain was one of the first economies to generate nuclear energy. But that meant radioactive waste has been left for decades without a permanent storage solution. This has seen the cost of temporary storage soar and the risk of catastrophe increase. Sellafield is one of the most dangerous places in the world, a notoriety bolstered by crumbling buildings and tanks leaking irradiated sludge. It is no stranger to trouble, going as far as changing its name to distance itself from being the site of one of history’s worst nuclear accidents in 1957.

The consensus today for an enduring answer is to bury nuclear waste deep underground in “geological disposal facilities”. Finland will open one next year. Its spent nuclear fuel will be packed in copper canisters, and these entombed in the bedrock on the Gulf of Bothnia at a depth of 400m. France and Sweden are pursuing similar schemes. Britain has homed in on three sites, but finding an area willing to host a £53bn underground dump is not easy, given public safety concerns.

It would be better to have cheap, green energy that doesn’t create toxic waste. But demand for electricity is growing, and – without the battery technology to effectively store energy – this will have to be met at times when there is no sun or wind. Hence countries aim to use nuclear energy to try to cut fossil fuel dependence. But, say experts, ambitious government targets for more nuclear power stations could see Britain run out of room to store the radioactive waste produced. Opportunities arise too. Half of the world’s 420 nuclear reactors will need dismantling by 2050. Sellafield is at the heart of a billion-pound UK decommissioning industry. Its expertise could be sold worldwide. But that relies on a reputation for safety and competence, something that Ms Coutinho’s intervention doubtless seeks to salvage.

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