WANTED: BNFL for crimes against the planet

Feature story - 22 August, 2002
Norman Askew, chief executive of British Nuclear Fuels has a skewed perspective. He is "delighted" by nuclear power expansion, even as people living around the Sellafield nuclear plant die from unusually high rates of cancer. Askew and government owned British Nuclear Fuels are also violating countries national sovereignty around the world as they ship plutonium through national waters against countries’ permissions. The warrant for their arrest is long overdue.

Norman Askew, Chief Executive of BNFL, is wanted for crimes against the planet.

The environmental criminal:

Norman Askew, Chief Executive of British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL) is wanted for questioning over ongoing, massive radioactive discharges into the global environment, a litany of safety breaches at BNFL's Sellafield plutonium facility, global transports of weapons-usable plutonium and failure to deal with a huge stockpile of radioactive waste. The only problem is that the local authorities are all answerable to the UK government - the owners of BNFL.

Norman gets rewarded well for the burden of running one of the world's biggest polluters - he just received an 18 percent pay raise 'as he had met targets for improving the operating performance of the company' - try telling that to the people who live around Sellafield and along the Irish Sea coast.

The accomplice: BNFL's partner in environmental crime is the UK government, represented by Energy Minister, Brian Wilson. In a recent piece of creative accountancy, worthy of the likes of Enron or WorldCom, the UK government recently decided to move £40.5 billion of BNFL's liabilities to the wonderfully named 'Liabilities Management Authority'. This is what it will cost to decommission and clean up the nuclear waste built up from BNFL's past activities - and the company only has £4bn in the bank to pay for it. Guess who gets to pay for BNFL's nuclear clean-up...the UK taxpayer of course. The same taxpayers will also face future harm from the UK's radioactive heritage.

The environmental crime: BNFL is armed with one of the deadliest substances on Earth, plutonium, which they use to fuel a dirty and dangerous nuclear energy industry.

It all began in 1951 when huge quantities of radioactive waste were deliberately pumped untreated into the Irish Sea to test the effects it had on the marine ecosystem. The discharges have been reduced but continue to this day. In spite of an international agreement calling for a phase-out of the discharges and the introduction of land-based dry storage of radioactive wastes, the UK intends to keep discharging radioactivity into the Irish Sea for at least another generation (2024 and beyond).

BNFL is also wanted for gross negligence and incompetence for falsifying data relating to the manufacture of plutonium MOX material exported to Japan; failure to meet the schedule to deal with high level nuclear wastes building up at their Sellafield plant; and numerous safety violations at Sellafield.

BNFL is involved in scandalous political donations. They are accused of 'greasing the palms' of US political parties to ease their business dealings in the US amidst opposition. BNFL have held the UK people ransom by demanding more and more funding in a vain attempt to manage their ageing nuclear installations and activities in a safer way.

BNFL is also endangering citizens beyond the UK with the transport of weapons-useable plutonium around the world and back through sovereign waters against countries' wishes.

Their shareholders, the UK government, are also wanted for the most heinous environmental crime of not only supporting the continuation of BNFL's nuclear pollution, but for approving the expansion of nuclear terror. The UK government has given BNFL permission to expand operations at Sellafield and is currently considering licensing another 10 nuclear power stations in the UK, some of which may be built by BNFL.

Witness Statement:

'this type of company is not qualified to conduct business in the nuclear field.'

-Japanese Electric Utility Industry Council

The victims: Although BNFL is putting people around the world at risk with their deadly plutonium shipments, the real victims are back at home, so close to the problem it is stealing their lives.

"At the time of the 1957 fire, Barbara Roberts was ten years old. Her parents' house was on the southern end of Walney Island. Like most children she had drunk milk at school and at home before the ban on the milk came through....

"The Walney channel is the most contaminated area of the Furness Peninsula, with levels of plutonium 1800 times fallout having been recorded there. Not that the Roberts knew this. Like most Barrow families the Roberts loved the beaches. They were a great place to take the family for a day out.

"Barbara... used to collect winkles and cockles and continued to eat shellfish directly from the sea right the way through her five pregnancies, although only three of the children she conceived made it into the world. In 1977 she was diagnosed as having a breast cancer... In 1981 she was found to have secondary cancers in the brain. She was told the condition was incurable and died on 19 December 1981.

"'She would lie in bed and ask me to push my hands to the side of her head to ease the pain,' her mother recalls. 'Sometimes I could hardly bear it... I've seen too much suffering in my life. This nuclear business... they don't know where it begins or where it ends. I remember now how daft I was in 1957. We heard the news to throw the milk away and I did that.'

"'I was just about to send Barbara to the shop for some more when I realised what I was doing. How did she come to die? Was it the accident, or playing on the beach, or eating the winkles?' Barbara's father vividly recalls that on cold mornings he would stop and talk to his daughter as she leant against the spent nuclear fuel falks for warmth as they were being unloaded in the dock.

"Ian Renwick... died of acute lymphatic leukemia in 1971 at the age of three. He was first diagnosed at the age of 20 months. Ian's family live in Moor Row, a small village six miles north of Sellafield. The family regularly ate local winkles and mussels that they gathered from the seashore as well as eating locally caught fish two or three times a week. The family holidays would be spent on the Cumbrian coast.

"Dorothy Reay died in 1962 aged 10 months of a lymphatic leukemia. Her family lives in Whitehaven, very close to the coast. She died within four days of the first blood tests being taken. Her father was a Sellafield worker who died of cancer in 1977.

"In a village the size of Seascale the expected rate for lymphomas for all ages would be one every fifteen years. [From 1980 to 1990] there were seven cases reported, giving a rate of nearly twelve times the national average."

Excerpts from "Living in the Shadow - the Story of the People of Sellafield" by Jean McSorley, Pan Books 1990.

The verdict: Very guilty indeed. BNFL have mislead both to the public and to their customers. They have led the public to believe that nuclear power is safe and clean when it clearly is not. BNFL has left a radioactive legacy that we are stuck with for millennia to come. There is no solution other than to ensure that it is stored in secure, above ground, well-documented facilities - so that our relatives 30,000 years down the line know what it is!

But BNFL must be held accountable for the dangerous shipments of rejected plutonium which, if new contracts are signed with their Japanese customers, will lead to another 100 such dangerous shipments over the next ten years. The UK government is responsible for stopping such madness and putting an end to the expansion of nuclear power. The government must fund more large-scale renewable energy projects like the giant offshore wind farm off the coast of North Wales.

You can help make BNFL accountable for their environmental crimes by joining the virtual flotilla against BNFL's current shipment of plutonium.


A clean and safe environment and a clear conscience that we are leaving future generations a legacy of clean, renewable energy rather than dangerous energy, radioactive waste and a secure world.