UK Government leaves us at the mercy of BNFL on Technetium-99 emissions

Last edited 13 December 2002 at 9:00am
13 December, 2002

The UK Government must impose a moratorium on the discharges of the radioactive chemical Technetium-99 (Tc-99) from Sellafield now, and not leave us to the mercy of British Nuclear Fuels' (BNFL) research programme.

The UK Government's decision (1) yesterday to consult on proposals to consider whether a moratorium on the discharge of Tc-99 from the Sellafield site is feasible whilst research on abatement technology is carried out, is too little, too late, according to Greenpeace.

"The Government must impose its moratorium now, rather than waiting for yet more consultation. BNFL has had plenty of time to investigate abatement technology, but it has clearly been dragging its feet. This decision will let them continue to do so," said Greenpeace nuclear campaigner, Pete Roche.

The Environment Agency told BNFL over 14 months ago, just before the company announced it was bankrupt, to get on with their research. Yet the Agency was forced to allow the Sellafield operator to release around a third of its annual limit for Tc-99 over September and October, because the company had failed to provide any new information about abatement techniques (2).

The real solution to end Sellafield's radioactive discharges is to end reprocessing. This polluting process is completely pointless. And yet this Government decision postpones, yet again, any review of reprocessing and the justification for continuing with it.

The bulk of the Tc-99 discharges come from the Magnox reprocessing plant on the Sellafield site. In fact this plant is responsible for up to 80% of Sellafield's radioactive pollution. This plant is scheduled for closure at the end of 2012, once it has reprocessed all of the spent fuel from Britain's loss-making Magnox reactors - the last of which is scheduled to close in 2010.

"The quickest way to reduce Sellafield's discharges would be to shut BNFL's ageing and loss-making Magnox reactors now, with the reprocessing plant following close behind. We have promised our European neighbours that we will make progressive and substantial reductions in radioactive discharges with the aim of achieving close to zero concentrations in the environment by 2020 (3). The Government's strategy is not going to achieve that - in fact Sellafield's discharges are quite likely to go up over the next few years," said Roche (4).

Notes for editors:

  1. The UK's decision document and Press Release are available at
  2. A recent environment agency briefing on Tc-99 said "BNFL applied to the regulators to carry out a trial using TPP on the forthcoming MAC campaign. TPP is a chemical offering a potential means of removing some Tc-99 from the MAC when it is treated and transferring it into solid waste. The Agency's proposed decision of Sep 2001 made clear the problems associated with the use of TPP as a potential 'quick fix' to reduce Tc-99 discharge and required BNFL to carry out a programme of work to try to address those problems. The regulators (HSE and the Agency) reviewed the submission and considered that a TPP trial in August/September would be premature, in view of the potential to cause substantial waste management challenges in the future and because of the lack of knowledge about the toxicity of TPP in the environment. To date BNFL has not provided any new information that would persuade the regulators to change their position held at the time the decision document was published - therefore the current MAC campaign is to be treated as per routine".
  3. At the OSPAR Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the north-east Atlantic Ministerial Meeting, held in Sintra, Portugal, in 1998, Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott agreed to a "Strategy with Regard to Radioactive Substances". The Objective of the Strategy is:
    "to prevent pollution of the maritime area from ionising radiation through progressive and substantial reductions of discharges, emissions and losses of radioactive substances, with the ultimate aim of concentrations in the environment near background values for naturally occurring radioactive substances and close to zero for artificial radioactive substances".

    The same meeting also noted "concerns expressed by a number of Contracting Parties about recent increases in technetium discharges UK Ministers have indicated that such concerns will be addressed in their forthcoming decisions "
  4. Because BNFL intends to increase the throughput in both its reprocessing plant, the actual levels of radioactive discharge going into the Irish Sea could almost double, compared with 1998, up to 2006, even if proposals to reduce BNFL's maximum permitted legal limits are agreed by the Government. Greenpeace International's submission to the OSPAR Ad Hoc Working Group on Radioactive Substances deals with this issue in detail and is available on request.


Further information:
Greenpeace UK press office 020 7865 8255

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