ANGLO-NORWEGIAN CONFERENCE ON TECHNETIUM DISCHARGES FROM SELLAFIELD
The Norwegian government and people, especially the coastal inhabitants depending on fishing and seafood industries as the only viable employment, are concerned about materials transported by currents from Sellafield to the northern seas. Although their radioactivity levels are far below that of natural potassium-40, and competent authorities on both sides agree that they pose no risk to human health or to sea creatures, they arouse an emotional response that must be considered. Technetium in particular is concentrated by some marine organisms, especially lobsters and a commercially important seaweed, and so could threaten the "clean" status of these foods that currently enables them to command a luxury market in the Far East. Britain has not satisfactorily answered anxieties on this score, and an association of Lofoten islanders arranged a conference on the subject hosted by British Nuclear Fuels plc (BNFL) on 22-23 April near Whitehaven, with representatives of statutory bodies and various interest groups including local churches.
Technetium-99, the only relevant isotope, is a long-lived product of nuclear energy generation, mildly radioactive but judged to present low risks to health. It therefore received no special provision in the design for a plant to decontaminate some medium-active liquid wastes that are unsuited to solidification and long-term storage, before discharge to sea. Although this plant takes out very nearly all of most radioactive elements present, the peculiar chemistry of technetium causes it to pass straight through. (This technetium comes from the old Magnox reprocessing plant; the chemistry of the newer oxide-processing plant THORP is different and the relevant stream is solidified.) Consequently, for a few years after the plant started processing a backlog of stored waste in 1994, a surge of technetium went into the Irish Sea. After two or three years, some of it was detected in Norwegian waters.
The Lofoten islanders themselves, and an Icelandic fisherman, presented their situation and anxieties for the survival of their communities, livelihood and culture in a most moving and engaging fashion. The main argument from Norway was presented with passion but courtesy by the Bellona Foundation, a respected organisation campaigning for the purity of the northern seas (it has been much concerned with the parlous state of defunct Russian nuclear submarines, whether sunken or in harbour); it demanded that BNFL should immediately cease discharging technetium and instead provide means to store the stream bearing it until suitable methods of separation and disposal could be developed. The UK Environment Agency explained the considerations behind the currently required steps to reduce prospective discharges of technetium as far as practicable without incurring other risks or costs disproportionate to the benefit. A Russian parliamentary guest speaker, in a diatribe against his nuclear energy ministry, grossly over-ran his time slot without touching on the subject of the conference. Briefly appearing, the Norwegian environment minister dutifully followed the Bellona line, and skated over a challenge to his crucial assumption that a totally satisfactory way of trapping technetium was technically possible.
The Norwegian case is that no one should contaminate a neighbour’s environment. As a principle that is obviously sound, if unevenly taken into public policy, but in practice is an ideal never absolutely attainable. In this instance, if there is damage, it has already been done, and the peak may have passed. BNFL’s response was that it had taken the steps that were so far possible; subject to regulatory approval, future arisings of technetium would be diverted away from the original route and solidified, but no satisfactory way was known to remove it from existing mixed wastes. There were serious objections to the one method showing any promise, which although still being assessed could impair the retention of other radioactive elements and would involve some release of a chemically toxic material into the environment. Even if acceptable means to reduce technetium discharges were successfully developed, it was not certain that they could be put in place before the discharges approached their natural end. Regulatory bodies were already concerned about the old tanks containing the technetium waste; prolonging the storage period, especially through the immediate moratorium on technetium discharges that Bellona demands, would increase these concerns, and building new tanks of the required standard would be inordinately expensive.
The meeting unfortunately demonstrated the difficulties that arise when technical matters are discussed with a mainly non-technical audience. Anyone can understand and sympathise with the Norwegian position (only slightly compromised by the fact that much of the radioactive pollution in the North Sea stems from Norway’s own industrial operations); we in the Sellafield area certainly do so, having similar anxieties on the shortage of alternative employment. In contrast, few people understand the chemical, engineering and regulatory difficulties in abating discharges of technetium, or indeed some of the facts relating to present levels. They are not always put over very well. In one instance, a form of presentation familiar in a technical context had led a Norwegian Liberal Party representative into an alarming misinterpretation, while in his truthfully reassuring answer to her question, the speaker failed to give the ten-second explanation needed to make it comprehensible.
The intention had been to produce a mutually-agreed statement on the outcome of the conference before it dispersed. Unsurprisingly, this was not achieved.
The church representatives agreed that while the Norwegian communities have our utmost sympathy in their concerns, two features of the conference remain particularly worrying. The first is the apparent inability of Bellona to understand that the "precautionary principle" on which the organisation insists, and the requirement for BNFL to consider all implications of its actions and obtain approval before embarking on them, would apply equally to Bellona’s own proposals for changing plant and operations at Sellafield even if they were agreed to be feasible. The second is that while the technetium issue would be of little consequence but for an exaggerated perception of risk among the Norwegians’ trading partners, the tendency of activists to raise inappropriate alarms could bring about the very crisis of confidence that they are anxious to prevent.
Seascale, April 2003.