'Inside Sellafield' and military plutonium - the BBC's nuclear lies of omission

Professor 'Jim' al'Khalili presenting BBC4's 'Inside Sellafield' from beside one of the facility's infamous open storage pond.
Professor 'Jim' al'Khalili presenting BBC4's 'Inside Sellafield' from beside one of the facility's infamous open storage ponds packed with high level nuclear waste - which, he omitted to mention, were a key part of the UK's plutonium bomb factory taking in specially bred waste from nuclear power stations around the country.
Professor 'Jim' Al'Khalili's 'Inside Sellafield' programme was a tour de force of pro-nuclear propaganda, writes David Lowry - understating the severity of accidents, concealing the role of the UK's nuclear power stations in breeding military plutonium, and giving false reassurance over the unsolved problems of high level nuclear waste.
The programme was highly misleading thanks to major omissions, concealing how the UK's entire 'civilian' nuclear programme was subverted into producing military plutonium that fed into the Sellafield bomb factory.

To mark the 70th anniversary of the first detonations of atomic bombs, two of which were used to immolate over 200,000 people instantly when exploded over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki respectively on 6 and 9 August 1945, the BBC has created a special 'nuclear season' of programmes examining the civil and military aspects of nuclear energy.

For one of these programmes the BBC commissioned Baghdad-born Professor Jameel 'Jim' Al-Khalili, theoretical physicist and Chair in the Public Engagement in Science from the University of Surrey, to research and present one programme called 'Britain's Nuclear Secrets: Inside Sellafield'.

As a regular BBC broadcaster, hosting the long-running The Life Scientific on Radio 4, and maker of several science television programmes on television, including on quantum physics and the history of electricity, he was eminently qualified to make this programme.

However the programme was highly misleading thanks to major omissions, concealing the severity of accidents, and how the UK's entire 'civilian' nuclear programme was subverted into producing military plutonium that fed into the Sellafield bomb factory.

Enough plutonium for over 30 nuclear bombs leaked out

For example, Al-Kalilili spent considerable time explain the key role of the £2.85bn Thermal Oxide Reprocessing plant (THORP), opened in 1994, once Sellafield's 'jewel in the atomic crown'. But he completely glossed over the severity of the THORP accident that disabled the plant for four years in 2004.

In May 2005, it was first reported that a serious leak of highly radioactive nuclear fuel dissolved in concentrated nitric acid - enough to half fill an Olympic-size swimming pool - had forced the facility's closure.

The highly dangerous mixture, containing about 22 tonnes of uranium and plutonium fuel, in liquid form, with a volume of around 83m3, had leaked through a fractured pipe into a huge stainless steel chamber in the 'feed clarification cell'.

The Nuclear Installations Inspectorate - now the Office for Nuclear Regulation - report on the accident, issued in December 2005, said that 160kg of plutonium was leaked - enough to make more than 30 nuclear weapons. The NII investigation identified that the company had been in breach of nuclear site licence conditions at the Sellafield site.

The Financial Times reported in May 2005 there was some evidence to suggest that the pipe may have started to fail in July or August 2004. Failure of the pipe (at which point significant amounts of liquor started to be released into the cell) is believed to have occurred in mid-January 2005.

However, in the period between January 2005 (and perhaps earlier) and April 19 2005, opportunities, such as cell sampling and level measurements, were missed which would have shown that material was escaping to secondary containment.

The programme was highly misleading thanks to major omissions, concealing how the UK's entire 'civilian' nuclear programme was subverted into producing military plutonium that fed into the Sellafield bomb factory.

Operations staff at Sellafield then failed to act appropriately to consequent off-normal conditions, according to Sellafield Ltd's board of inquiry report, 'Fractured Pipe with Loss of Primary Containment in the THORP Feed Clarification Cell', dated 26 May 2005, but released publicly in redacted form on 29 June 2005.

The most extraordinary conclusion of the report reads: "Given the history of such events so far, it seems likely there will remain a significant chance of further plant failures in the future, even with the comprehensive implementation of the recommendations of this report." (emphasis added)

For an unknown reason the report of this hugely significant accident is listed on the Sellafield Ltd website under the section on 'operational excellence'.

£2 million a day lost for six years

This initially led to a near three-year closure, with a loss of £2 million a day, if BNFL's claims of the value of operating THORP are to be believed. A further closure of THORP followed due to a separate incident.

On October 16 2006 at Carlisle Crown Court, Sellafield Ltd was fined £300,000 for the breach of licence condition 27, £100,000 for the breach of licence condition 24 and £100,000 for the breach of licence condition 34.

Regional campaign group, Cumbrians Opposed to a Radioactive Environment (CORE) published critique of THORP's operations in March this year, noting that it has reprocessed just over 5,000 tonnes in its 20 years to 2014 due to numerous 'events' - yet had a design capacity of 1,000-1,200 tonnes per year.

If THORP meets its currently scheduled 2018 closure date 'with all contracts completed', the plant will have reprocessed a total of 9500 tonnes of spent fuel over 25 years of operation at an average annual rate of 380 tonnes per year (or 420 tonnes per year if the plant's extended closure from 2005 is taken into account) - just one-third of design specification.

CORE explains: "THORP's failure to reprocess the projected 7,000 tonnes - by almost 2,000 tonnes - in the first ten years resulted from a catalogue of unplanned closures over the decade, the first striking within days of the plant's opening when a spillage of nitric acid ate its way through cables and instrumentation and forced a shut-down of several weeks.

"The official down-playing of the extent and consequences of the leak was to become a common feature of many future accidents and unplanned stoppages which, when added to the planned outages, have contributed to a major loss of operational time over the last 20 years - and resulted in the 7,000 tonne baseload contracts being completed only in December 2012, some 9 years late.

"Now in its 21st year of operation, THORP has been subjected to a series of closures - a majority unplanned - totalling some 6 years over the last 20 years.

"As a further damning indictment of THORP's under-performance, these missed annual targets, set recently at around 400 tonnes per year, are but a pale shadow of BNFL's original claim that THORP would reprocess 1,000 tonnes per year in the first ten years of operation (a design target not once achieved) and 800 tonnes per year thereafter - now wholly out of THORP's reach.

Cancelled contracts

"Against this background it is unsurprising that those customers - whose continued support was being relied on by BNFL - were unprepared to give THORP any further business.

"Indeed, rather than securing a single new contract from overseas, as originally projected, contracts from German utilities were cancelled in the plant's first year of operation - losing BNFL an estimated £250m.

"When summarised, THORP's poor reprocessing performance together with years lost through unplanned stoppages, the failure to meet targets and the loss of contracts and customer confidence, paint a picture of a plant that bears no resemblance to the world-leading flagship image portrayed by BNFL 21 years ago. The only 'attribute' still to be qualified is the claim of THORP's £500M profit in the first ten years of operation.

"Though its faltering performance and inept management has badly holed the overrated THORP flagship below the waterline, the views of an ex-BNFL Director who was heavily involved in the battle to open THORP, add a further dimension.

"In his book Inside Sellafield, the long serving Harold Bolter suggests that the figures fed into the plant's economic case by BNFL 'have turned out to be incorrect in several important respects' and more tellingly that 'if the highly complex plant fails to operate to its projected standard, it will become a huge financial drain on the nation.'

Calder Hall's dual mission - power and bombs

Speaking from inside the plant, Professor Al-Khalili described Calder Hall as "the world's first commercial nuclear power station." This is untrue in two ways. Calder Hall was not a 'commercial' nuclear power plant, but a plutonium production plant run by the UK Atomic Energy Authority for the Ministry of Defence to provide nuclear explosive materials for nuclear warheads.

The only sense it was 'commercial' is that its opening - by the young Queen Elizabeth on 17th October 1956 with the words "This new power, which has proved itself to be such a terrifying weapon of destruction, is harnessed for the first time for the common good of our community" - has been used many times use as propaganda for the UK nuclear industry.

Unforgivably, the UK Atomic Energy Authority put false words into the mouth of Queen Elizabeth. The nuclear industry was born with a big lie!

In fact it was clearly stated at the time of the plant's opening, in a remarkable little book entitled Calder Hall: The Story of Britain's First Atomic Power Station, written by Kenneth Jay, and published by the Government's Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell to mark Calder's commissioning in October 1956.

Jay wrote: "Major plants built for military purposes such as Calder Hall are being used as prototypes for civil plants ... the plant has been designed as a dual-purpose plant to produce plutonium for military purposes as well as electric power ... it would be wrong to pretend that the civil programme has not benefitted from, and is not to some extent dependent upon, the military programme."

The first Hinkley nuclear plant's military production role

Al'Khalili positively asserted that with Calder Hall's opening, "Britain had become a nuclear powered nation", as he explained how the first generation of nuclear power plants emerged after Calder Hall. What the did not explain was how these too were used as support reactors for military plutonium production.

On 17 June 1958 the Ministry of Defence issued little noticed press statement on "the production of plutonium suitable for weapons in the new [nuclear ] power stations programme as an insurance against future defence needs" in the UK's first generation Magnox reactor.

A week later in the UK Parliament, opposition Labour MPs Roy Mason, asked why Her Majesty's Government had "decided to modify atomic power stations, primarily planned for peaceful purposes, to produce high-grade plutonium for war weapons; to what extent this will interfere with the atomic power programme; and if he will make a statement?"

He was informed as follows by the Paymaster General, Reginald Maudling: "At the request of the Government, the Central Electricity Generating Board has agreed to a small modification in the design of Hinkley Point and of the next two stations in its programme so as to enable plutonium suitable for military purposes to be extracted should the need arise.

"The modifications will not in any way impair the efficiency of the stations. As the initial capital cost and any additional operating costs that may be incurred will be borne by the Government, the price of electricity will not be affected.

"The Government made this request in order to provide the country, at comparatively small cost, with a most valuable insurance against possible future defence requirements. The cost of providing such insurance by any other means would be extremely heavy." [Hansard, 24 June 1958 cols. 246-8.]

This was challenged by Roy Mason, but the minister retorted: "The hon. Gentleman says that it is an imposition. The only imposition on the country would have arisen if the Government had met our defence requirements for plutonium by means far more expensive than those proposed in this suggestion."

Military plutonium manufactured at Hinkley

The headline story in the Bridgwater Mercury, serving the community around Hinkley, on that day, 24th June 1958 was "Military plutonium to be manufactured at Hinkley".

The article explained: "An ingenious method has been designed for changing the plant without reducing the output of electricity". The recently formed CND was reported to be critical, describing this as a "distressing step" insisting: "The Government is obsessed with a nuclear militarism which seems insane."

The left wing Tribune magazine of 27th June 1958 was equally critical of the deal under the headline "Sabotage in the Atom Stations":

"For the sake of making more nuclear weapons, the Government has dealt a heavy blow at the development of atomic power stations. Unless this disastrous decision is reversed, we shall pay dearly in more ways than one for the sacrifice made on the grim altar of the H-bomb."

Then, on 3rd July 1958, the United Kingdom and United States signed a detailed agreement on co-operation on nuclear weapons development, after several months of Congressional hearings in Washington DC, but no oversight whatsoever in the UK Parliament.

A month later Mr Maudling told backbencher Alan Green MP in Parliament that: "Three nuclear power stations are being modified, but whether they will ever be used to produce military grade plutonium will be for decision later and will depend on defence requirements. The first two stations, at Bradwell and Berkeley, are not being modified and the decision to modify three subsequent stations was taken solely as a precaution for defence purposes." [Hansard, 1st August 1958 cols. 228-9.]

Following further detailed negotiations, the Ango-American Mutual Defense Agreement (defence is spelled with an 's' even in the British version, giving a hint as to where the bilateral treaty was drafted) on Atomic Energy matters to give it its full treaty title, was amended on 7th May 1959, to permit the exchange of nuclear explosive material including plutonium and enriched uranium for military purposes.

The Times' science correspondent wrote on 8 May 1959 under the headline: "Production of Weapons at Short Notice": "The most important technical fact behind the agreement is that of civil grade - such as will be produced in British civil nuclear power stations- can now be used in weapons".

Within a month, Mr Maudling in Parliament told Tory back bencher, Wing Commander Eric Bullus MP - who had asked the Paymaster-General "What change there has been in the intention to modify three nuclear power stations to enable plutonium suitable for military use to be extracted should the need arise?":

"Last year Her Majesty's Government asked the Central Electricity Generating Board to make a small modification in the design of certain power stations to enable plutonium suitable for military purposes to be extracted if need should arise.

"Having taken into account recent developments, including the latest agreement with the United States, and having re-assessed the fissile material which will become available for military purposes from all sources, it has been decided to restrict the modifications to one power station, namely, Hinkley Point." (emphasis added) [Hansard, 22 June 1959 cols 847-9.]

The Sellafield cooling ponds - part of Britain's bomb factory

In another extraordinary omission, Al'Khalili stood by the infamous Sellafield holding ponds stuffed full of nuclear waste, describing them as having simply been used for storing spent fuel rods and other high level wastes.

What he failed to mention was their role as a key part of the plutonium making process for thge UK's nuclear bombs. As The Ecologist reported last October when revealing photographs showing the shocking state of the ponds:

"The two adjacent fuel storage ponds, which lie between the old Windscale nuclear piles, were part of the military plutonium production line using the Windscale spent fuel until the Windscale diasaster in 1957.

"With the Windscale piles out of commission, they were then adapted to receive nuclear waste from civilian power stations such as Calder Hall and Hinkley Point.

"The first pond in the plutonium production line is B30, which is open to the elements. From there underwater tunnels were used to convey the fuel-bearing skips to other ponds and silos within the adjacent building, where the fuel rods were 'decanned' from their cladding.

"The fuel was then dissolved in concentrated acids in the B203 reprocessing plant, where the plutonium for Britain's nuclear weapons programme was chemically separated using the PUREX process. Both ponds contain a mix of fuel, sludge, and other miscellaneous nuclear wastes."

As nuclear expert John Large - who gave evidence on the topic to the House of Commons Environment Comittee in 1986 - explained, the ponds were not just forgotten about as Al'Khalili seemed to think, but were abandoned after being overloaded with leaking fuel rods:

"During the three-day week they powered up the Magnox reactors to maximum, and so much fuel was coming into Sellafield that it overwhelmed the line, and stayed in the pool too long.

"The magesium fuel rod coverings corroded due to the acidity in the ponds, and began to degrade and expose the nuclear fuel itself to the water, so they just lost control of the reprocessing line at a time when the ponds were crammed with intensely radioactive nuclear fuel."

"This left the fuel in a very unstable condition, with actual nuclear fuel complete with uranium 238, 235 and all the fission products, in contact with water. The problem then is that you get corrosion with the formation of hydride salts which leads to swelling, outside cracks, and metal-air reactions.

The whole fuel ponds began to look like milk of magnesia, and what with the poor inventories that had been kept, no one even knew what was in there any more. Even the Euratom nuclear proliferation inspectors complained about it as there was by some estimates over a tonne of plutonium sitting there in the fuel rods and as sludge that was never properly accounted for."

The spectre of the new nuclear renaissance

Al'Khalili then went on to give every impression that high level nuclear waste can be safely stored using the process of 'vitrification', that is, turning it in glass, and so binding the waste safely into a permanent, impermeable matrix.

What he failed to mention is that the glass is by no means permanent and durable storage medium for "thousands of generations" as the glass is liable to break down - and that the problem of long term disposal of these wastes remains unsolved. For example, as R C Ewing and colleagues wrote in 1995 in the journal Progress in Nuclear Energy,

"the post-disposal radiation damage to waste form glasses and crystalline ceramics is significant. The cumulative α-decay doses which are projected for nuclear waste glasses ... are well within the range for which important changes in the physical and chemical properties may occur, e.g. the transition from the crystalline-to-aperiodic state in ceramics."

Al'Khalili ended his programme waxing lyrical about the prospects of a new generation of British reactors being built, including several planned alongside the Sellafield site, in a project known as Moorside.

Recently, Martin Forwood of CORE explained that "The 'biggest construction project in Europe' is expanding from Nugen's original 200 hectare site to 552 hectares of farmland reaching right up to two villages and an 11th Century church. But with compulsory purchase on the cards, there's nothing locals can do except keep on fighting the entire deeply flawed project."

Marianne Birkby, another indefatigable local Cumbrian campaigner agains the nuclear industry, has written to the BBC Trust - responsible for BBC broadcast standards to complain about the bias in Professor AlKhalili's programme

Birkby heads her complaint "Biased Infomercial", arguing: "The programme purports to be investigative journalism when it is an infomercial for the nuclear industry and the government's new build agenda. 'The real story' suggests impartiality. While the programme reiterates in a misleadingly superficial way the known dangers of nuclear power there was no attempt at all by the programme makers to speak to opponents of nuclear power or even whistleblowers from within the industry.

"PR group Copper Consultancy have advised the nuclear industry / government bodies such as DECC to use 'science champions' to promote new nuclear development. Jim Al-Khalili is one of BBC's foremost science champions. He rounds off the programme with enthusiastic endorsements for new nuclear build while standing within the ancient field systems that are under threat of new nuclear development.

"This is at the time when there is a consultation going on. Grass roots group Radiation Free Lakeland have been aggressively warned off sending any briefings from independent scientists about new build to Copeland Council's Nationally Significant Infrastructure Panel as 'it might prejudice decisions.'

"This BBC4 infomercial masquerading as investigative journalism is entirely prejudicial in its promotion of new nuclear build."

She is right to raise her objections. As I have explained, they actually go even deeper and wider than she sets out.

The two professors - have they lost their critical faculties?

The 'programme consultant' was Professor Andrea Sella, a chemist and broadcaster based at University CollegeLondon where he is a Professor of Inorganic Chemistry. He sits on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Cheltenham Science Festival and on the Education Committee of the Royal Institution. He was awarded the 2014 Michael Faraday Prize from The Royal Society for "his excellent work in science communication".

It makes me wonder what happened to the critical faculties of these two professors when they made this programme. The BBC and its editors should be ashamed at allowing such a biased programme to making it to air.



The programme: 'Britain's Nuclear Secrets: Inside Sellafield' was broadcast on BBC4 on Monday 10th August.

Dr David Lowry is Senior research fellow, Institute for Resource and Security Studies, Cambridge, MA, USA.

Additional reporting by The Ecologist.

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