Sellafield = Springfield?

Homer Simpson's nuclear swimming pool

Feature story - 25 August, 2005
A massive leak in a nuclear facility lies unnoticed for 9 months until someone goes looking for an awful lot of missing radioactive material. Excellent! It must be the latest adventure of Homer Simpson, comically bumbling around in the incompetently run Springfield nuclear power plant, right?

Homer Simpson discussing with Tony Blair what a great idea nuclear power is. Perfectly safe, clean and inexpensive. Maybe Homer is pasing on some advice: "Honest it will never be a problem, and if it does just try and keep it quiet."

Doh! Afraid not, cartoon fans. It's a real event at a real nuclearreprocessing plant called THORP at the Sellafield nuclear complex inthe UK.

One closed chamber in the plant now has a highly radioactive mixturecontaining 20 tonnes of uranium and plutonium fuel dissolved in nitricacid spread across the floor. It's enough liquid to fill half anOlympic swimming pool. Unlike your average swimming pool this one isnot for swimming or even looking at. It's so radioactive that thechamber can only be entered by robots. They will need to be designedand built, before a clean up can even be attempted.

"I suppose that's normal backgroundradiation, the kind you'd find in any nuclear facility, or for thatmatter, playgrounds and hospitals?"

- Mr Burns, owner of Sellafield, no, Springfield, nuclear power plant.


The leak was caused by ruptured pipe connected to a tank. The tankmoved when it was filled and emptied which eventually ruptured theconnecting pipe. Engineers had not considered movement of the tankduring construction. You can almost see Homer during the construction -"if that suspended tank is being constantly filled and emptied withthousands of litres of radioactive liquid maybe we should consider itmight move?" Perhaps a Mr Burns thought this was a minor quibble.

The leak probably started in August 2004 but significant leakagestarted in January 2005. It went unnoticed until operators couldn'tfind all the fuel the plant was supposed to be reprocessing.

In April 2005, remote camera's revealed 83,000 litres of spent nuclearfuel spread across the floor, containing enough plutonium to make 20nuclear bombs.

Perhaps, like Homer, the operators taped a picture of themselves overMonty Burns' surveillance camera (upside down of course) while theysnuck off to watch the Springfield Isotopes play the pesky ShelbyvilleShelby-Villians.

'Serious Incident'

While no one was injured in the leak it has closed the plantindefinitely, costing taxpayers millions of Euros for each week ofclosure. On the nuclear accident scale of 1 to 7 it was rated 3 - a'serious incident'. If the plant remains closed for a long period itcould be the final nail in the coffin for the troubled THORP plant.While workers at the plant are being blamed for their negligence, it isthe management of Sellafield, and the UK government who support itscontinued operation who are the guilty parties. Even though Homer isn'treally in charge, the accident shows once again that there is no suchthing as safe nuclear power.

Homers are expendable. Mr Burns is always with us.

Mr. Burns: "Ironic, isn't itSmithers? This anonymous clan of slack-jawed troglodytes may cost methe election, and yet if I were to have them killed, I would be the oneto go to jail. That's democracy for you."

We, and many others, campaigned against the construction of the plantin the early 90's on the grounds that it was too expensive, toodangerous, and too unnecessary. To the pro-nuclear lobby it was (yetanother) bright new hope in the nuclear age and was supposed to usherin age of limitless nuclear power.

Mr. Burns: "Imagine, Smithers: energy too cheap to meter! And if they don't have meters, we can get away with charging them a bundle!"

This optimistic vision quickly evaporated like so many nuclear pipedreams. Construction costs overran to a staggering US$4 billion. Theplant has never operated at full capacity due to accidents andfailures. Expected orders never materialised because the new nuclearplants expected to place orders turned out to be too expensive tobuild. Customers are suing THORP because reprocessing is so behindschedule. If the customers suing THORP are successful it will betaxpayers again footing the expensive bill.  

Marge: "I'm not sure about the people Bart's working for. I think they're criminals."

Homer: "A job's a job. I mean, takeme. If my plant pollutes the water and poisons the town, by your logic,that would make me a criminal."

Even though the plant has been an expensive failure the Japanese government is busy wasting US$21 billion

on a similar reprocessing plant.

Mr. Burns: "What good is money if it can't inspire terror in your fellow man?"

Far from solving some of the many problems of nuclear power thereprocessing of nuclear fuel just creates more weapons grade plutonium,swallows billions of tax payers money and pours more radioactivity inthe environment.

If nuclear reprocessing were any other industry it would have been shut down long ago.

But as the Potbellied Yellow Sage has said, "weaselling out of things is what separates us from the animals.....except of course the weasel.."

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