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Controversy Over Safety of British Nuclear Plant - 2002-03-27


Britain's nuclear plant at Sellafield has been the target of criticism from Ireland and Norway over health and safety concerns. But Britain argues that the plant is safe and necessary.

The aging nuclear facility at Sellafield on Britain's west coast has long been the target of anti-nuclear campaigners.

The plant, which houses Britain's first major nuclear reactor, has now become the focus of new safety concerns in the wake of last September's terrorist attacks against the United States.

Two of Britain's European neighbors, Ireland and Norway, are raising diplomatic and legal challenges to Sellafield in a bid to shut down the plant.

Senior British and Irish officials have debated the pros and cons of Sellafield at a seminar at London's Foreign Press Association.

Among the disputes is whether Sellafield is dumping dangerous levels of radioactive waste into the ocean. Norway says it has detected traces of a radioactive element from Sellafield in its shellfish and seaweed.

But the British minister of state for industry and energy, Brian Wilson, says Sellafield's emissions are miniscule.

"To put it into perspective, naturally occurring radioactivity found in sea water and fish dwarfs any minute traces of radioactivity that might be attributable to discharges of manmade radioactivity from UK [United Kingdom] nuclear installations, including Sellafield." he said.

But the Irish minister of state for public enterprise, Joe Jacob, says his countrymen have lost faith in Britain's word on Sellafield because there has been a history of safety violations at the plant.

"The concerns of the ordinary people of Ireland, I cannot find words to express them," he said. "They are ultra-concerned about the situation. They're concerned particularly because they can have no trust. There's no credence."

A leading British nuclear physicist told the London seminar that Sellafield could become the target of terrorists. The scientist, Frank Barnaby, said it would be relatively easy for terrorists to build a primitive bomb if they could acquire plutonium from Sellafield.

"The threat of dispersion of many kilograms of plutonium makes a crude nuclear explosive device a particularly attractive weapon for a terrorist group," he said. "Put crudely, with such a device, a terrorist cannot fail to produce a great deal of death and destruction."

But another panelist said that scenario is not likely. Peter Beck is a chemical engineer who monitors the nuclear industry for Britain's Royal Institute of International Affairs.

"The industry, funny enough, is peopled with lots of staff who do not particularly want to be blown up by a nuclear bomb," he said. "Therefore, they do all their best to ensure that this will not happen."

With the scientists and politicians still arguing about Sellafield, it is certain that the long and bitter debate over Britain's nuclear power industry will continue.

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