Having toured the Sellafield Graveyard of Radioactive Waste, it was time to return to the Modern Age. After swinging our legs back over the knee-high box and allowing a space-age type gadget to test us for contamination, we left the dreary old building behind and returned to the bus, which drove through scary industrial streets to another building, where the actual processing currently takes place.
Ah, yes. The actual work that takes place at Sellafield. Unfortunately this is the part where my understanding seriously began to falter. I mean, they told us, and I listened to them speak… and yet I was still pretty much in the dark about the whole thing [revelation: nuclear science isn’t my forte]. However, I was able to understand this: countries have nuclear waste after making nuclear fuel. They don’t know what to do with it so they pack it up and send it to Sellafield, or one of other two reprocessing plants, located in France and Russia, respectively. There they reprocess it using some heavy-shit chemicals that must under no circumstances enter the environment, and this work is so dangerous that no man must come near it, only specially-designed robots are able to carry it out. But, what the reprocessed product actually does, what its purpose is – that part escaped me. Sadly.
But anyway. Our guide with the ravaged eyes led us briskly through myriad corridors, all of which were unnervingly quiet. It took me a while to figure out why: there were hardly any people about. Suddenly I recalled what our personal escort had told us on our way from the train station: that he found it very strange that 10,000 people actually worked in the Sellafield plant, because each time he went there, he hardly saw anyone. [YT’s theory: they only tell everyone 10,000 people work there because that way if they’re being pressured to close the plant, they can say ‘Oh, but if we close, 10,000 people will lose their jobs!’ – Plausible? Fiction? Paranoia? Discuss.]
Through a door, and the guide proudly presented the robot that did the reprocessing. ‘What a shame it’s not Tuesday!’ he remarked jovially, ‘if it were, you could see it in action.’ [It has since transpired that one of the major complaints about the plant is that it is performing way below its capacity.] We all stepped up, one by one, to view the steel machinery behind thick glass, located inside a narrow tunnel type-thing that sloped downwards. Sitting there, inert. Not a glowing radioactive rod in sight. Shrug.
For YT the holding pond was the real star of the show.
One of the corridors had a door, and passing through that door we unexpectedly found ourselves on a steel balcony that jutted bizarrely out from a wall, high up above an enormous pool that was the length of maybe six Olympic-sized swimming pools. It was filled with water, and submerged in that water were massive steel cylinders, the tops of which were bolted on with huge screws. They were neatly arranged in the water, which was perfectly, uncannily still. Straddling this pond was a bridge-like structure, only more massive and cumbersome than a bridge needs to be, and in the middle of the bridge was a little booth, like a control tower.
The whole group went quiet. I don’t know about the rest, but I was rendered speechless by two things: the sheer size of the place, and the absolute silence that prevailed. This was a place unlike any I could have envisioned in my weirdest science fiction fantasies.* I was filled with a combination of horror and awe. Because of what was in those cylinders. Because of what went on here. This is where the nuclear waste was kept, having been transported by ships that sailed under the cover of utmost secrecy. They were deposited in this pond and then kept for seven years – seven years – because that’s how long it took for the stuff inside to cool down enough to be processed – even by robots. And at the end of those seven years, that massive construction of a bridge heaved into motion, moved across the pond, projected a steel arm, re-arranged the cylinders until it found the one it wanted, and then moved it to the place where the steel robot behind the glass received it, so it could do its thing.
It was precisely there, I believe, that the leak occurred. It was the heavy-ass chemicals that must never enter the environment that leaked into a Bund** – enough to fill half an Olympic-sized swimming pool. It was a subordinate robot that discovered the leak during a routine scanning, some time after the fact. [Scary?].
They say it’s safe, no cause for alarm. And yet the fact still remains that Sellafield releases technetium into the ocean as a matter of course, the ocean water used to cool down those cylinders is circulated from the sea and back out, and radioactivity from emissions [albeit within ‘acceptable’ limits] can be measured around the coastlines of the Nordic countries, and especially around Ireland.
This concludes our somewhat morose report on the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing plant. Thanks to all who listened. Lighter fare shall be served tomorrow.
It’s been great today – easy breezes, a thin veil of cloud, 11°C at the moment. Daybreak was at 02.52, nightfall at 24.02.
* Not that I’ve ever had a science fiction fantasy mind you.
** Thanks to Greavsie for the jargon.