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Are Nuclear Waste Reprocessing Plants Safe?

Tokaimura Accident, Japan - March 1997

An inquiry was ordered by the Japanese Prime Minister, Mr Hashimoto, following a fire and later an explosion at the Power Reactor and Nuclear Fuel Development Plant. The inquiry, to be conducted by the Science and Technology Agency is expected to take six months.

Initially the fire was said to have affected "only" 10 workers and that it was extinguished in 15 minutes. However it started again eight hours later and an explosion followed; the number of workers affected was increased to 37.

The plant is operated by the State run Donen company, the same organisation which operates the Monju fast breeder reactor. The company has a record of mismanagement and evasion. When the $6 billion Monju reactor leaked of sodium from its cooling system in 1995 the extent of the damage was concealed from the government. Shigeo Nishimura, the person from Donen directed to investigate the cover up, committed suicide on unearthing the actions of his superiors. The Monju plant remains closed.

Several factors which emerged in the week following the Tokaimura accident included that there was no full time employee on duty when the fire occurred. It was handled by a junior employee of a sub-contractor.

There were no official warnings to local residents, schools or to an old people's home close by.

Smoke and heat detectors at the plant were switched off after the fire was extinguished.

Donen had been aware for 20 years that the reprocessing plant was a fire hazard.

Safety improvements had been put off for cost reasons.

Heat monitors were not installed in spite of the great heat generated by the waste.

The level of radiation released into the atmosphere was 71 times than originally stated.

On 10 April the operators admitted that they had given out false information when the accidents occurred.

The Tokaimura reprocessing plant remains closed.

Dounreay, Scotland

This plant was set up in the 1950's and currently has two reprocessing plants. It is sited on the extreme north coast of Scotland and was the destination of a batch of 114 spent fuel rods from the HIFAR reactor at Lucas Heights in 1996.

One of its first, low tech., innovations was to sink a shaft, close to the cliff top and proceed to tip low and medium level waste into it. In addition to this the British Broadcasting Corporation has recently disclosed that high level wastes, including highly enriched uranium, some plutonium and fuel elements from its fast breeder reactor, were also dumped into the shaft in 1962.

In 1977 the shaft exploded! The lid and metal scaffolding was hurled many metres into the air. Dounreay management said that there was no problem and that they had cleaned up the mess successfully within 24 hours.

In the 1980's it was noticed that the rate of child leukemia seemed to be well above the national average. The British Government set up the Committee on the Medical Aspects of Radiation in the Environment (COMARE) to investigate any linkage with the operation of the reprocessing plants. At the outset of its inquiry the Dounreay management was asked to detail all accidental releases of radioactive materials. The list provided did not mention the 1977 blast!

The chairman of COMARE said that this omission was an example of "being considerably economical with the truth"

The COMARE report in 1987 found it impossible to directly implicate the operation of the Dounreay plant with the high leukemia rates but stated that " it is less likely to be by chance that such an occurrence would take place around Dounreay and Sellafield, the two installations in the UK involved in nuclear fuel reprocessing."

Since 1984 an average of 12 particles of high level radioactive material per year have been found on the local beach. This in spite of having the whole beach lifted and cleaned!

Professor Bridges, chairman of COMARE, said recently that " Hopefully, within a year, we should know where the particles are coming from."

After reprocessing ANSTO's 114 fuel rods, that reprocessing plant closed "pending future orders"

The second reprocessing plant at Dounreay is closed indefinitely following a leak of radioactive cooling liquid in 1996. The contaminated water was passed, conveniently, into the sea.

Currently the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate is investigating "significant inadequacies" in the control of contractors who make up over half the site's 1300 employees. The problems relate to radiation protection standards. The plant may be in breach of its operating licence as it allowed two workers to receive ten times their expected radioactive dose over a ten week period.

Note: Our local politicians and a majority of the Sutherland Shire Council reacted vehemently against the proposition of a reprocessing plant at Lucas Heights because they understood perfectly the dangers to the community which they were elected to protect. However, incomprehensibly, the same people have no hesitation in agreeing to transport our waste to either a foreign reprocessor or to a reprocessing plant in another electorate, should the Government decide to build one within Australia. Their reasoning does not include the moral issues.
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