Sellafield is a large multi-function nuclear site close to Seascale on the coast of Cumbria, England. Current key activities (2019) include nuclear fuel reprocessing, nuclear waste storage and nuclear decommissioning, and it is a former nuclear power generating site. The site covers an area of two square miles and comprises more than 200 nuclear facilities and more than 1,000 buildings.[1] It is Europe's largest nuclear site and has the most diverse range of nuclear facilities in the world situated on a single site.[2]

Sellafield nuclear site
2005 view of the site
CountryUnited Kingdom
LocationSeascale, Cumbria
Coordinates54.4205°N 3.4975°W / 54.4205; -3.4975
Commission dateWindscale Piles (non-power generating): 1950
Calder Hall: 1956
Windscale AGR: 1962
Owner(s)Nuclear Decommissioning Authority
Operator(s)Sellafield Ltd
Nuclear power station
Reactor typeMagnox (Calder Hall)
AGR prototype (Windscale)
Power generation
Units operationalNo nuclear power generation since 2003
Units decommissionedCalder Hall: 4 x 60 MWe (gross)
Windscale AGR: 1 x 36 MWe (gross)
External links
CommonsRelated media on Commons

grid reference NY034036

Sellafield incorporates the UK's first generation nuclear reactors and associated re-processing site at Windscale, and the world's first nuclear power station to generate electricity on an industrial scale at Calder Hall. The UK's National Nuclear Laboratory has its Central Laboratory and headquarters on the site.

Originally built as a Royal Ordance Factory in 1942, the site briefly passed into the ownership of Courtaulds for rayon manufacture following WW2, but was re-acquired by the Ministry of Supply in 1947 for the production of plutonium for nuclear weapons, and was given the name "Windscale Works". Subsequent key developments include the building of Calder Hall nuclear power station, the Magnox fuel reprocessing plant, the prototype Advanced Gas-cooled Reactor (AGR) and the Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant (THORP).

Current (2019) activities at the Sellafield site are primarily decommissioning of historic plants, and reprocessing of spent fuel from UK and international nuclear reactors which will completely cease when the Magnox fuel reprocessing plant closes in 2020. Decommissioning projects include the Windscale Piles,[3] Calder Hall nuclear power station, and a number of historic reprocessing facilities and waste stores.

The site currently directly employs about 10,000 people, and is owned by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) which is a non-departmental public body of the UK government. Following a period 2008-2016 of management by a private consortium, the site has been returned to direct government control by making the Site Management Company, Sellafield Ltd, a subsidiary of the NDA. The site is due to be fully decommissioned by 2120 at a cost of £121bn.[4]

Site development

Royal Ordnance Factory

The site was established with the creation of Royal Ordnance Factory (ROF) Sellafield by the Ministry of Supply in 1942; built by John Laing & Son[5] at the hamlet of Low Sellafield.[6] The nearby sister factory, ROF Drigg, had been constructed in 1940, 5 km to the south-east near the village of Drigg.[7] Both sites were classed as Explosive ROFs, producing high-explosive at ROF Drigg, and propellant at ROF Sellafield. They were built in this location to be remote from large centres of population because of the hazardous nature of the process, and to reduce the risk of WW2 enemy air attack. There were also existing rail links, and a good supply of high quality water from Wastwater. Production ceased at both factories immediately following the defeat of Japan.

Start of nuclear activity

After the war, the Sellafield site was briefly in the ownership of Courtaulds for development as a rayon factory, but was re-acquired by the Ministry of Supply for the production of plutonium for nuclear weapons. Construction of the nuclear facilities commenced in September 1947 and the site was renamed Windscale Works. The building of the nuclear plant was a huge construction project, requiring a peak effort of 5,000 workers. The two air-cooled and open-circuit, graphite-moderated Windscale reactors (the "Windscale Piles") and the associated first generation reprocessing plant, producing the first British weapons grade plutonium-239 were central to the UK nuclear weapons programme of the 1950s.

Windscale Pile No. 1 became operational in October 1950, just over three years from the start of construction, and Pile No. 2 became operational in June 1951. Later in 1957 Pile 1 suffered a major accident; the Windscale fire, the worst nuclear accident in UK history, ranked in severity at level 5 out of a possible 7 on the International Nuclear Event Scale.

Calder Hall power station

With the creation of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) in 1954, ownership of Windscale Works passed to the UKAEA. The first of four Magnox reactors became operational in 1956 at Calder Hall, a site extension across the River Calder, and the whole site became known as Windscale and Calder Works.

British Nuclear Fuels Ltd (BNFL)

Following the break-up of the UKAEA into a research division (UKAEA) and a newly-created company for nuclear production British Nuclear Fuels Ltd (BNFL) in 1971, a major part of the site was transferred to BNFL ownership and management. In 1981 BNFL's Windscale and Calder Works was renamed Sellafield as part of a major reorganisation of the site and there was a consolidation of management under one head of the entire BNFL Sellafield site. The remainder of the site remained in the hands of the UKAEA and was still called Windscale.[8]


Since its inception as a nuclear facility, Sellafield has continued to be the centre of UK nuclear reprocessing operations, which separate the uranium, plutonium, and fission products from spent nuclear fuel.[9] The uranium can then be used in the manufacture of new nuclear fuel, or in applications where its density is an asset. The plutonium can be used in the manufacture of mixed oxide fuel (MOX) for thermal reactors, or as fuel for fast breeder reactors, such as the Prototype Fast Reactor at Dounreay.


Sellafield's biggest decommissioning challenges relate to the legacy of the early nuclear research and nuclear weapons programmes.[10] One building still houses the aluminium cladding for the uranium fuel rods of Piles 1 and 2, and is modelled on a grain silo, with waste tipped in at the top and argon gas added to prevent fires.[10]

Some of the other problems date back to the 1972 miners' strike: the reactors were pushed so hard that waste processing could not keep up, and "cladding and fuel were simply thrown into its cooling ponds and left to disintegrate."[10]

The 2018-2021 NDA business plan for Sellafield decommissioning is focused on these high hazards and includes the following key activities in the area of Legacy Ponds and Silos;[11]

  • Pile Fuel Storage Pond: Sustain sludge exports and prepare for de-watering
  • Pile Fuel Cladding Silo: Complete commissioning of Box Encapsulation Plant to received silo contents, and begin retrievals.
  • First Generation Magnox Storage Pond: Continue to retrieve fuel and sludge.
  • Magnox Swarf Storage Silo: Begin retrievals from the silo.


  • Continue demolition of Pile No.1 chimney
  • Continue demolition of the original re-processing plant stack.

Recent site management

NDA increasing estimates of remaining cost of decommissioning and clean-up[12][13]
Year of
SellafieldOther NDA sitesTotal
(£ billions, discounted)

Following ownership by BNFL, since 1 April 2005 the site has been owned by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA), a non-departmental public body of the UK government. As part of government policy to introduce competition into the nuclear industry in 2008 the NDA awarded Nuclear Management Partners (NMP) the position of Parent Body Organisation of Sellafield Ltd under their standard management model for NDA sites. This consortium, composed of US company URS, British company AMEC and French company Areva, was initially awarded a contract for five years, with extension options to 17 years, and in November 2008 NMP took over management of the site.[14] In October 2008 it had been revealed that the British government had agreed to issue the managing body for Sellafield an unlimited indemnity against future accidents; according to The Guardian, "the indemnity even covers accidents and leaks that are the consortium's fault." The indemnity had been rushed through prior to the summer parliamentary recess without notifying parliament.[15] In 2009, Sellafield decommissioning accounted for 40% of the annual budget of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority – over £1.1bn.[16]

In 2013, the UK Government Public Accounts Committee issued a critical report stating that the NMP consortium managing Sellafield had failed to reduce costs and delays. Between 2005 and 2013 the annual costs of operating Sellafield had increased from £900 million to about £1.6 billion. The estimated lifetime undiscounted cost of dealing with the Sellafield site increased to £67.5 billion.[17][18][19] NMP management was forced to apologise after projected clean-up costs passed the £70 billion mark in late 2013.[20] In 2014, the final undiscounted decommissioning cost projection for Sellafield was increased to £79.1 billion,[21] and by 2015 to £117.4 billion.[13] The annual operating cost was projected to be £2 billion in 2016.[22]

On 13 January 2015, the NDA announced that NMP would lose the management contract for Sellafield Ltd as the "complexity and technical uncertainties presented significantly greater challenges than other NDA sites", and the site was therefore "less well suited" to the NDA's existing standard management model.[23] The new structure, which came into effect on 1 April 2016, saw Sellafield Ltd. become a subsidiary of the NDA.

Major plants

Windscale Piles

Following the decision taken by the British government in January 1947 to develop nuclear weapons, Sellafield was chosen as the location of the plutonium production plant, consisting of the Windscale Piles and accompanying reprocessing plant to separate plutonium from the spent nuclear fuel. Unlike the early US nuclear reactors at Hanford, which consisted of a graphite core cooled by water, the Windscale Piles consisted of a graphite core cooled by air. Each pile contained almost 2,000 tonnes (1,968 L/T) of graphite, and measured over 7.3 metres (24 ft) high by 15.2 metres (50 ft) in diameter. Fuel for the reactor consisted of rods of uranium metal, approximately 30 centimetres (12 in) long by 2.5 centimetres (1 in) in diameter, and clad in aluminium.[24] The initial fuel was loaded into the Windscale Piles in July 1950.[25][26] By July 1952 the separation plant was being used to separate plutonium and uranium from spent fuel.

On 10 October 1957, the Windscale Piles were shut down following a fire in Pile 1 during a routine maintenance check, which destroyed the core and released an estimated 750 terabecquerels (20,000 curies) of radioactive material, including 22 TBq of Cs-137 and 740 TBq of I-131 into the shafts.[27] Thanks to innovative filters installed by Nobel laureate Sir John Cockcroft 95% of the material was captured.[28] As a precautionary measure, milk from surrounding farming areas was destroyed. Following the fire, Pile 1 was unserviceable, and Pile 2, although undamaged by the fire, was shut down as a precaution.[24]

In the 1990s, the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority started to implement plans to decommission, disassemble and clean up both piles. In 2004 Pile 1 still contained about 15 tonnes (14.76 L/T) of uranium fuel, and final completion of the decommissioning is not expected until at least 2037.[24]

In 2014, radioactive sludge in the Pile Fuel Storage Pond (PFSP), built between 1948 and 1952, started to be repackaged in drums to reduce the "sludge hazard" and to allow the pond to be decommissioned.[29][30] Decommissioning will require retrieval of sludge and solids, prior to dewatering and deconstruction, with retrievals planned for completion in 2016.[31]

First Generation Reprocessing Plant

The first generation reprocessing plant was built to extract the plutonium from spent fuel to provide fissile material for the UK's atomic weapons programme, and for exchange with the United States through the US-UK Mutual Defence Agreement.

It operated from 1951 until 1964, with an annual capacity of 300 tonnes (295 L/T) of fuel, or 750 tonnes (738 L/T) of low burn-up fuel. It was first used to reprocess fuel from the Windscale Piles, and was later repurposed to process fuel from UK Magnox reactors, however following the commissioning of the dedicated Magnox Reprocessing Plant, it became a pre-handling plant to allow oxide fuel to be reprocessed in the Magnox reprocessing plant, and was closed in 1973.[32]

Magnox Reprocessing Plant

In 1964 the Magnox reprocessing plant came on stream to reprocess spent nuclear fuel from the national Magnox reactor fleet.[33] The plant uses the "plutonium uranium extraction" (Purex) method for reprocessing spent fuel, with tributyl phosphate in odourless kerosene, and nitric acid, as extraction agents. The Purex process produces uranium, plutonium and fission products as separated chemical output streams.

Over the 30 years from 1971 to 2001 the Magnox Reprocessing Plant had reprocessed over 35,000 tonnes of Magnox fuel, with 15,000 tonnes of fuel being regenerated.[34] Magnox fuel has to be reprocessed in a timely fashion since the cladding corrodes if stored underwater, and routes for dry storage have not yet been proven.[35]

The First Generation Magnox Storage Pond (FGMSP) was built to support reprocessing of fuel from UK Magnox power stations through the Magnox Reprocessing Plant, and was used for operations between 1960 until 1986. The pond is 20m wide, 150m long and 6m deep. A confinement wall is scheduled to be built in the future to help it withstand earthquakes.

As of 2014, the First Generation Magnox Storage Pond (FGMSP) remains as a priority decommissioning project. As well as nuclear waste, the pond holds about 1,200 cubic metres of radioactive sludge of unknown characteristics and 14,000 cubic metres of contaminated water.[36] Decommissioning initially requires retrieval of the radioactive sludge into a newly built Sludge Packaging Plant 1, as well as fuel and skip retrieval. Completion of this will allow the dewatering and dismantling of the remaining structure. Future work will immobilise the sludge for long-term storage, and process solids through the Fuel Handling Plant for treatment and storage.[37]

Calder Hall nuclear power station

Calder Hall, first connected to the grid on 27 August 1956 and officially opened by Queen Elizabeth II on 17 October 1956,[39][40] was the world's first power station to generate electricity on an industrial scale (four 60 MWe reactors) from nuclear energy.[41][note 1]

The Calder Hall design was codenamed PIPPA (Pressurised Pile Producing Power and Plutonium) by the UKAEA to denote the plant's dual commercial and military role. Construction started in 1953.[42] Calder Hall had four Magnox reactors capable of generating 60 MWe (net) of power each, reduced to 50 MWe in 1973.[43][44] The reactors also supplied steam to the whole site for process and other purposes. The reactors were supplied by UKAEA, the turbines by C. A. Parsons and Company,[44] and the civil engineering contractor was Taylor Woodrow Construction.[45]

In its early life Calder Hall primarily produced weapons-grade plutonium, with two fuel loads per year; electricity production was a secondary purpose.[46] From 1964 it was mainly used on commercial fuel cycles; in April 1995 the UK Government announced that all production of plutonium for weapons purposes had ceased.

The station was closed on 31 March 2003, the first reactor having been in use for nearly 47 years.[47]

Calder Hall had four cooling towers, built in 1950–56 88 metres in height and were a highly visible landmark. Plans for a museum involving renovating Calder Hall and preserving the towers were formulated, but the costs were too high. The cooling towers were demolished by controlled implosions on 29 September 2007, by Controlled Demolition, Inc. A period of 12 weeks was required to remove asbestos in the towers' rubble.[48]

On 3 September 2019 it was announced that de-fuelling of all the reactors was complete.[49]

Windscale Advanced Gas Cooled Reactor (WAGR)

The WAGR[50] was a prototype for the UK's second generation of reactors, the advanced gas-cooled reactor or AGR, which followed on from the Magnox stations. The station had a rated thermal output of approximately 100MW and 30 MW electrical. The WAGR spherical containment, known colloquially as the "golfball", is one of the iconic buildings on the site. Construction was carried out by Mitchell Construction and completed in 1962.[51] This reactor was shut down in 1981, and is now part of a pilot project to demonstrate techniques for safely decommissioning a nuclear reactor.

Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant (THORP)

Between 1977 and 1978 an inquiry was held into an application by BNFL for outline planning permission to build a new plant to reprocess irradiated oxide nuclear fuel from both UK and foreign reactors. The inquiry was used to answer three questions:

"1. Should oxide fuel from United Kingdom reactors be reprocessed in this country at all; whether at Windscale or elsewhere?
2. If yes, should such reprocessing be carried on at Windscale?
3. If yes, should the reprocessing plant be about double the estimated site required to handle United Kingdom oxide fuels and be used as to the spare capacity, for reprocessing foreign fuels?"

The result of the inquiry was that the new plant, the Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant (THORP) was given the go ahead in 1978, although it did not go into operation until 1994.

In 2003, it was announced that the Thorp reprocessing plant would be closed in 2010 (later extended to 2018 to allow completion of agreed contracts). Originally predicted to make profits for BNFL of £500m, by 2003 it had made losses of over £1bn.[53] Subsequently, Thorp was closed for almost two years from 2005, after a leak had been undetected for 9 months. Production eventually restarted at the plant in early 2008; but almost immediately had to be put on hold again, for an underwater lift that takes the fuel for reprocessing to be repaired.[54]

On 14 November 2018 it was announced that operations had ended at THORP. The facility will be used to store spent nuclear fuel until the 2070s.[55]

Highly Active Liquor Evaporation and Storage

Highly Active Liquor Evaporation and Storage (HALES) is a department at Sellafield.

It conditions nuclear waste streams from the Magnox and Thorp reprocessing plants, prior to transfer to the Waste Vitrification Plant.[56]

Waste Vitrification Plant

In 1990 the Waste Vitrification Plant (WVP), which seals high-level radioactive waste in glass, was opened. In this plant, liquid wastes are mixed with glass and melted in a furnace, which when cooled forms a solid block of glass.[56]

The plant has three process lines and is based on the French AVM procedure. The plant was built with two lines, commissioned during 1989, with a third added in 2002.[56] Principal item is an inductively heated melting furnace, in which the calcined waste is merged with glass frit (glass beads of 1 to 2 mm in diameter). The melt is placed into waste containers, which are welded shut, their outsides decontaminated and placed in the air-cooled Vitrified Product Store.[57] This storage consists of 800 vertical storage tubes, each capable of storing ten containers. The total storage capacity is 8000 containers, and 6000 containers have been stored to 2016.[57]

Vitrification should ensure safe storage of waste in the UK for the middle to long term, with the objective of eventual placement in a deep geological repository. As of 2007 studies of durability and leach rates were being carried out.[57][58]

Sellafield MOX Plant

Construction of the Sellafield MOX fuel Plant (SMP) was completed in 1997, though justification for the operation of the plant was not achieved until October 2001.[59] Mixed oxide, or MOX fuel, is a blend of plutonium and natural uranium or depleted uranium which behaves similarly to the enriched uranium fuel for which most nuclear reactors were designed. MOX fuel is an alternative to low enriched uranium (LEU) fuel used in the light water reactors which predominate in nuclear power generation. MOX also provides a means of using excess weapons-grade plutonium (from military sources) to produce electricity.

Designed with a plant capacity of 120 tonnes/year, the plant achieved a total output of only 5 tonnes during its first five years of operation.[59] In 2008 orders for the plant had to be fulfilled at COGEMA in France,[60] and the plant was reported in the media as "failed"[61][62] with a total construction and operating cost of £1.2 billion.[63]

On 12 May 2010 an agreement was reached with existing Japanese customers on future MOX supplies.[64] In July 2010 Areva was contracted to design and supply a new rod line to improve reliability and production rate.

On 3 August 2011 the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority announced that the MOX Plant would close, due to the loss of Japanese orders following the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster.[65] However, Japanese orders for MOX re-commenced on 17 April 2013, being supplied by the Sellafield MOX plant's main competitor, the French MOX fuel vendor COGEMA owned by Areva.[66]

Enhanced Actinide Removal Plant (EARP)

Since its early days, Sellafield has discharged low-level radioactive waste into the sea, using a flocculation process to remove radioactivity from liquid effluent before discharge. Metals dissolved in acidic effluents were made to produce a metal hydroxide flocculant precipitate following the addition of ammonium hydroxide. The suspension was then transferred to settling tanks where the precipitate would settle out, and the remaining clarified liquid, or supernate, would be discharged to the Irish Sea. As an improvement to that process, in 1994 the Enhanced Actinide Removal Plant (EARP) became operational. In EARP the effectiveness of the process is enhanced by the addition of reagents to remove the remaining soluble radioactive species. EARP was enhanced further in 2004 to further reduce the quantities of technetium-99 released to the environment.[67]

Radioactive waste stores

Sellafield has a number of radioactive waste stores, mostly working on an interim basis while a deep geological repository plan is developed and implemented.

The stores include: [68]

  • Legacy Ponds and Silos – Storage of historic waste
  • Sludge packaging plant – Treatment and interim storage of sludges from legacy ponds
  • Sellafield product and residue store – Site store for plutonium and plutonium residues – The plutonium stockpile now estimated (November 2013) at 100 tonnes.[69]
  • Engineered drum stores – Site stores for plutonium contaminated material
  • Encapsulated product stores – Site stores for grouted wastes
  • Vitrified product store – Vitrified high level waste

The UK's main Low Level Waste Repository for nuclear waste is 6 kilometres (3.7 mi) south east of Sellafield at Drigg. A paper published in 1989 said that 70% of the waste received at Drigg originated from Sellafield.[70]

Fellside Power Station

Fellside Power Station is a 168 MWe CHP gas-fired power station adjacent to the Sellafield site, which it supplies with process and heating steam. It is run as Fellside Heat and Power Ltd, is wholly owned by Sellafield Ltd and is operated & managed by PX Ltd. It was built in 1993, in anticipation of the closure of the Calder Hall generating station, which supplied these services. It was originally equally owned by BNFL and Scottish Hydro Electric (which became Scottish and Southern Energy in December 1998). BNFL bought SSE's 50% share in January 2002.

The station uses three General Electric Frame 6001B gas turbines, with power entering the National Grid via a 132 kV transformer. The turbines at Fellside are normally natural gas fired but are also able to run on distillate (diesel) fuel.[71]

Central Laboratory – National Nuclear Laboratory headquarters

The Central Laboratory at Sellafield is the headquarters of the National Nuclear Laboratory and is the flagship nuclear Research and Development facility in the UK.[72] It supports newly built reactors, operation of reactors, operations of fuel processing plants and decommissioning and clean-up. The NNL's Central Laboratory is available to run a wide range of radioactive and non-radioactive experimental programmes.

In addition, it offers a wide range of analytical services, building on its location on the Sellafield site and considerable expertise of its resident technologists. Customers range from Government and the NDA to site licence companies, utilities, nuclear specialists and universities. The facility has been designed to be flexible. Smaller experiments can be easily set, taking advantage of the modular nature of the laboratories. Larger experiments and rigs can be assembled off site, installed and pre-tested in non-radioactive areas prior to active testing.

Sellafield and the local community


Sellafield directly employs around 10,000 people[73] and is one of the two largest non-governmental employers in West Cumbria (along with BAE Systems at Barrow-in-Furness),[74] with approximately 90% of the employees coming from West Cumbria.[75]

Because of the increase in local unemployment following any run down of Sellafield operations, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (and HMG) is concerned that this needs to be managed.[76]

West Cumbria Sites Stakeholder Group (WCSSG)

The WCSSG is an independent body whose role is to provide public scrutiny of the nuclear industry in West Cumbria.

The WCSSG replaced the Sellafield Local Liaison Committee (SLLC) to cover all the nuclear licensed sites in the area, not just Sellafield Site, and this change is intended to emphasise the importance of engagement with the community; encouraging input in discussions and consultations from all stakeholders. With the change of organisation and ownership of licensed sites, the WCSSG has consequently changed and re-organised its sub-committees, but the objective remains the same. The meetings of the main group and its sub-committees are held in West Cumbria and are open to the public.[77]

Sellafield Visitor Centre

The Centre was opened by Prince Phillip in 1988, and at its peak it attracted an average of 1,000 people per day. However, despite a large refurbishment in 1995, and the transfer of creative control to the Science Museum in 2002, its popularity deteriorated, prompting the change from a tourist attraction to a conference facility in 2008. This facility completely closed in 2015, was briefly used by the Civil Nuclear Constabulary as a training facility, and as of 2019 the building has been completely demolished. The story of Sellafield is now being told through a permanent exhibition at the Beacon Museum in Whitehaven.[78]


Radiological releases

Between 1950 and 2000, there were 21 serious incidents or accidents involving off-site radiological releases that warranted a rating on the International Nuclear Event Scale, one at level 5, five at level 4 and fifteen at level 3. Additionally during the 1950s and 1960s there were protracted periods of known, deliberate discharges to the atmosphere of plutonium and irradiated uranium oxide particulates.[79] These frequent incidents, together with the large 2005 THORP plant leak which was not detected for nine months, have led some to doubt the effectiveness of the managerial processes and safety culture on the site over the years.

In the effort to build an independent British nuclear weapon in the 1940s and 1950s, the Sellafield plant was constructed; diluted radioactive waste was discharged by pipeline into the Irish Sea.[80] Greenpeace claims that the Irish Sea remains one of the most heavily contaminated seas in the world because of these discharges.[81] Ocean scientist David Assinger has challenged this general suggestion, and cites the Dead Sea as the most radioactive sea in the world.[82] The Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic (OSPAR Convention) reports an estimated 200 kilograms (441 lb) of plutonium has been deposited in the marine sediments of the Irish Sea.[83] Cattle and fish in the area have been contaminated with plutonium-239 and caesium-137 from these sediments and from other sources such as the radioactive rain that fell on the area after the Chernobyl disaster. Most of the area's long-lived radioactive technetium comes from the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel at the Sellafield facility.[84]

Technetium-99 is a radioactive element which is produced by nuclear fuel reprocessing, and also as a by-product of medical facilities (for example Ireland is responsible for the discharge of approximately 11 grams or 6.78 gigabecquerels of technetium-99 each year despite not having a nuclear industry).[85] Because it is almost uniquely produced by nuclear fuel reprocessing, technetium-99 is an important element as part of the OSPAR Convention since it provides a good tracer for discharges into the sea.

In itself, the technetium discharges do not represent a significant radiological hazard,[86] and recent studies have noted "...that in the most recently reported dose estimates for the most exposed Sellafield group of seafood consumers (FSA/SEPA 2000), the contributions from technetium-99 and actinide nuclides from Sellafield (<100 µSv) was less than that from 210Po attributable to discharges from the Whitehaven phosphate fertilizer plant and probably less than the dose from naturally occurring background levels of 210Po."[87] Because of the need to comply with the OSPAR Convention, British Nuclear Group (the licensing company for Sellafield) has recently commissioned a new process in which technetium-99 is removed from the waste stream and vitrified in glass blocks.[88]

Discharges into the sea of radioactive effluents – mainly caesium-137 – from Sellafield amounted to 5200 TBq during the peak year, 1975.[89]

There has been concern that the Sellafield area will become a major dumping ground for unwanted nuclear material, since there are currently no long-term facilities for storing High-Level Waste (HLW), although the UK has current contracts to reprocess spent fuel from all over the world. Contracts agreed since 1976 between BNFL and overseas customers require that all HLW be returned to the country of origin. The UK retains low- and intermediate-level waste resulting from its reprocessing activity, and instead ships out a radiologically equivalent amount of its own HLW. This substitution policy is intended to be environmentally neutral and to speed return of overseas material by reducing the number of shipments required, since HLW is far less bulky.[90]

1983 was the year of the "Beach Discharge Incident" in which radioactive discharges containing ruthenium and rhodium-106, both beta-emitting isotopes, resulted in temporary warnings against swimming in the sea along a 10-mile (16 km) stretch of coast between St. Bees and Eskmeals.[91][92] BNFL received a fine of £10,000 for this discharge.[93] 1983 was also the year in which Yorkshire Television produced a documentary "Windscale: The Nuclear Laundry", which claimed that the low levels of radioactivity that are associated with waste streams from nuclear plants such as Sellafield did pose a non-negligible risk.[94]

First Generation Magnox Storage Pond

Due to algae forming in the pool and a buildup of radioactive sludge, it was impossible to determine exactly how much radioactive waste was stored in the FGMSP. British authorities had not been able to provide the Euratom inspectors with precise data and the European Commission took action against Great Britain in the European Court of Justice.[95][96] According to Greenpeace there was an expected 1300 kg of plutonium, 400 kg of which was in mud sediments.[97]

Radiation around the pool could get so high that a person was not allowed to stay more than 2 minutes, seriously affecting decommissioning.[98] The pool was not watertight; time and weather had created cracks in the concrete, letting contaminated water leak.[99] In 2014 photographs of the storage ponds were leaked to the media, showing they were in poor condition with cracked concrete, vegetation growing amongst machinery and seagulls bathing in the pools.[100]

MOX fuel quality data falsification

The MOX Demonstration Facility was a small-scale plant to produce commercial quality MOX fuel for light water reactors. The plant was commissioned between 1992 and 1994, and until 1999 produced fuel for use in Switzerland, Germany and Japan.

In 1999 it was discovered that the plant's staff had been falsifying quality assurance data since 1996.[101] A Nuclear Installations Inspectorate (NII) investigation concluded four of the five work-shifts were involved in the falsification, though only one worker admitted to falsifying data, and that "the level of control and supervision ... had been virtually non-existent.". The NII stated that the safety performance of the fuel was not affected as there was also a primary automated check on the fuel. Nevertheless, "in a plant with the proper safety culture, the events described in this report could not have happened" and there were systematic failures in management.[102]

BNFL had to pay compensation to the Japanese customer, Kansai Electric, and take back a flawed shipment of MOX fuel from Japan.[103] BNFL's Chief Executive John Taylor resigned,[104] after initially resisting resignation when the NII's damning report was published.[105][106]

Plutonium records discrepancy

On 17 February 2005, the UK Atomic Energy Authority reported that 29.6 kilograms (65 lb) of plutonium was unaccounted for in auditing records at the Sellafield nuclear fuel reprocessing plant. The operating company, the British Nuclear Group, described this as a discrepancy in paper records and not as indicating any physical loss of material. They pointed out that the error amounted to about 0.5%, whereas International Atomic Energy Agency regulations permit a discrepancy up to 1% as the amount of plutonium recovered from the reprocessing process never precisely matches the pre-process estimates.

The inventories in question were accepted as satisfactory by Euratom, the relevant regulatory agency.[107][108]

Waste Vitrification Plant sabotage

In 2000, wires on six robotic arms that moved vitrified glass blocks were deliberately cut by staff, putting the vitrification plant out of operation for three days.[109]

2005 THORP plant leak

On 19 April 2005 83,000 litres of radioactive waste was discovered to have leaked in the THORP reprocessing plant from a cracked pipe into a huge stainless steel-lined concrete sump chamber built to contain leaks.

A discrepancy between the amount of material entering and exiting the THORP processing system had first been noted in August 2004. Operations staff did not discover the leak until safeguards staff reported the discrepancies. 19 tonnes of uranium and 160 kilograms of plutonium dissolved in nitric acid has been pumped from the sump vessel into a holding tank.[110]

No radiation was released to the environment, and no one was injured by the incident, but because of the large escape of radioactivity to the secondary containment the incident was given an International Nuclear Event Scale level 3 categorisation. Sellafield Limited was fined £500,000 for breaching health and safety law. In January 2007 Sellafield was given consent to restart THORP.[110]

Organ removal inquiry

In 2007 an inquiry was launched into the removal of tissue from a total of 65 dead nuclear workers, some of whom worked at Sellafield.[111] It has been alleged that the tissue was removed without seeking permission from the relatives of the late workers. Michael Redfern QC has been appointed to lead the investigation.[112] At the same time The Observer revealed that official documents showed that during the 1960s volunteer workers at Sellafield had participated in secret Cold War experiments to assess the biological effect of exposure to radioactive substances, such as from ingesting caesium-134.[113]

The inquiry final report was published in November 2010,[114] reporting that "...body parts had been removed between 1961 and 1992. The deaths of 76 workers – 64 from Sellafield and 12 from other UK nuclear plants – were examined, although the scope of the inquiry was later significantly widened."[115] The person behind this scheme was Dr Geoffrey Schofield, who became BNFL's Company chief medical officer, and who died in 1985. Sellafield staff did not breach any legal obligation, did not consider their actions untoward, and published the scientific information obtained in peer-reviewed scientific journals. It was the hospital pathologists, who were profoundly ignorant of the law, who breached the Human Tissue Act 1961 by giving Sellafield human organs, without any consents, under an informal arrangement.[114]

Health studies in Cumbria and Seascale

In 1983, the Medical Officer of West Cumbria, is said by Paul Foot to have announced that cancer fatality rates were lower around the nuclear plant than elsewhere in Great Britain.[116] In the early 1990s, concern was raised in the UK about apparent clusters of leukaemia near nuclear facilities.

A 1997 Ministry of Health report stated that children living close to Sellafield had twice as much plutonium in their teeth as children living more than 100 miles (160 km) away. Health Minister Melanie Johnson said the quantities were minute and "presented no risk to public health". This claim, according to a book written by Stephanie Cooke, was challenged by Professor Eric Wright, an expert on blood disorders at the University of Dundee, who said that even microscopic amounts of the man-made element might cause cancer.[117]

Studies carried out by the Committee on Medical Aspects of Radiation in the Environment (COMARE) in 2003 reported no evidence of raised childhood cancer in general around nuclear power plants, but did report an excess of leukaemia (cancer of the blood or bone) and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma (NHL) (blood cancer) near two other nuclear installations including Sellafield, the Atomic Weapons Establishment Burghfield and UKAEA Dounreay. COMARE's conclusion was that "the excesses around Sellafield and Dounreay are unlikely to be due to chance, although there is not at present a convincing explanation for them".[118] In earlier reports COMARE had suggested that " single factor could account for the excess of leukaemia and NHL but that a mechanism involving infection may be a significant factor affecting the risk of leukaemia and NHL in young people in Seascale."[119]

In a study published in the British Journal of Cancer, which also did not find an increase in any other cancers other than Leukemia, the authors of which attempted to quantify the effect population mixing might have on the Seascale leukaemia cluster. In the analysis of childhood leukaemia/NHL in Cumbria, excluding Seascale, they noted that if both parents were born outside the Cumbrian area (incomers), there was a significantly higher rate of leukaemia/NHL in their children. 1181 children were born in the village of Seascale between 1950 and 1989, in children aged 1–14 during this period, the Seascale cluster of 6 observed cases of NHL were noted. Two similarly aged children, born between 1950 and 1989, outside Seascale were also diagnosed with ALL/NHL before the end of 1992. The origin of birth of 11 of the 16 parents of these eight children was known, and found to be; 3 had parents born outside Cumbria and 3 had one parent born outside the UK. The studies authors strongly supported the hypothesis that the risk of ALL/NHL, in particular in the younger age group, increases with increased exposure to population mixing during gestation or early in life. Although they determined that the exact mechanism by which it causes these malignancies, apart from Kinlen's infection aetiology[120] that was mentioned, remained unknown, concluding that the possibility of additional risk factors in Seascale remains.[121]

In an examination of all causes of stillbirth and infant mortality in Cumbria taken as a whole, between 1950 and 1993, 4,325 stillbirths, 3,430 neonatal death and 1,569 lethal congenital anomalies, occurred among 287,993 births. Overall, results did not infer an increased risk of still birth or neonatal death in Cumbria, the rate of these negative outcomes were largely in line with the British baseline rate. However, there was a cautioned connection between a small excess of increased risk of death from lethal congenital anomalies and proximity to municipal waste incinerators and chemical waste crematoriums being noted. With two examples of the latter crematoriums operating in both Barrow-in-Furness and further afield at Carlisle, crematoriums which may have emitted various chemical dioxins during their operation.[122]

Objections to reprocessing

Republic of Ireland

Sellafield has been a matter of consternation in Ireland, with the Irish Government and some of the population concerned at the risk that such a facility may pose to the country.

The Irish government has made formal complaints about the facility, and in 2006 came to an agreement with the British Government about the matter, as part of which the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland and the Garda Síochána (the Irish police force) are now allowed access to the site.[125]

Isle of Man

The Government of the Isle of Man has also registered protests due to the risk posed by radioactive contamination, due to the proximity of the Isle of Man. The Manx government has called for the site to be shut down.[126]

The Irish and Manx governments have collaborated on this issue, and brought it to the attention of the British-Irish Council.[127]


Similar objections to those held by the Irish government have been voiced by the Norwegian government since 1997. Monitoring undertaken by the Norwegian Radiation Protection Authority has shown that the prevailing sea currents transport radioactive materials leaked into the sea at Sellafield along the entire coast of Norway and water samples have shown up to tenfold increases in such materials as technetium-99.[128] The Norwegian government is also seeking closure of the facility.[129]

Proposal to establish adjacent power station

In February 2009, NuGeneration (NuGen), a consortium of GDF Suez, Iberdrola and Scottish and Southern Energy (SSE), announced plans to build a new nuclear power station of up to 3.6GW capacity adjacent to Sellafield. In October 2009, NuGen purchased an option to acquire land around Sellafield from the NDA for £70m.[130]

On 18 October 2010, the UK government announced that Sellafield was one of the eight possible sites it considered suitable for future nuclear power stations.[131] On 23 June 2011 the government confirmed the suitability of the site, and hoped an electricity generating company would choose to build a power station near Sellafield at Moorside by 2025.[132] In 2018, this project was terminated when Toshiba decided to close Nugen and withdraw from nuclear power plant construction in the UK.[133] This project would not have been on the Sellafield licensed site.


Sting's 1985 song, "We Work the Black Seam", about the UK miners' strike (1984–85), included the line, "the poisoned streams in Cumberland", amongst other references suggesting that nuclear power had led to the collapse of the coal mining industry.

In 2010 Post-Punk group Spear of Destiny wrote the song "Windscale" on their album Omega Point which referenced the fire in 1957.

In 1992, rock bands U2, Public Enemy, Big Audio Dynamite II, and Kraftwerk held a "Stop Sellafield" concert for Greenpeace to protest against the nuclear factory. Stop Sellafield: The Concert was later released that year on VHS in the UK, and all proceeds went directly to Greenpeace.

Kraftwerk mentions Sellafield in the intro of the 1991 version of the song Radioactivity together with Chernobyl, Harrisburg and Hiroshima. On their 2005 live album Kraftwerk preface a live performance of Radioactivity with a vocoder voice announcing: Sellafield 2 will produce 7.5 tons of plutonium every year. 1.5 kilogram of plutonium make a nuclear bomb. Sellafield 2 will release the same amount of radioactivity into the environment as Chernobyl every 4.5 years. One of these radioactive substances, Krypton 85, will cause death and skin cancer.[134]

Déanta, a traditional Irish band from Northern Ireland, refers to Sellafield and its nuclear dangers in their song "Cold Grey Fairyland".

Runrig A Scottish folk-rock group, mention Sellafield in their 1993 song 'Move a Mountain'.


Fallout, a 2006 drama shown on the Irish national TV station RTÉ, based on the false premise[135] that parts of Ireland would need to be evacuated following a serious accident at Sellafield,[136] following the accident there are evacuation riots, societal collapse and widespread health impacts.[137]

Sellafield was the subject of Marilynne Robinson's 1989 book, Mother Country: Britain, the Welfare State, and Nuclear Pollution, a critique of British nuclear policy.

Sellafield is the central theme of Les Barker's comic poem 'Jason and the Arguments,' and is also mentioned in other Barker works.

The Irish attitude to Sellafield forms a key plot strand in Body Breaker, a crime thriller by Mike Craven.

Norman Nicholson's poem Windscale, which refers to the 1957 accident, is a commentary on the poison that Nicholson believed nuclear power had introduced to an area of natural beauty.

See also


  1. A 5 MWe experimental reactor at Obninsk in the Soviet Union had been connected to the public supply in 1954, though the main task was to carry out experimental studies, and it was on a small scale.


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  • Ritchie, Berry (1997). The Good Builder: The John Laing Story. James & James.

Further reading

  1. Sellafield, Erik Martiniussen, Bellona Foundation, December 2003, ISBN 82-92318-08-9
  2. Technetium-99 Behaviour in the Terrestrial Environment – Field Observations and Radiotracer Experiments, Keiko Tagami, Journal of Nuclear and Radiochemical Sciences, Vol. 4, No.1, pp. A1-A8, 2003
  3. The excess of childhood leukaemia near Sellafield: a commentary on the fourth COMARE report, L J Kinlen et al. 1997 J. Radiol. Prot. 17 63–71

Official information

1957 fire

2005 leak


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