Today Tonight examines the threat to Ireland presented by the Sellafield nuclear plant.

In light of 30 years of false information, non-disclosure of accidents and recent leaks at the plant, 'Today Tonight' takes a look at the potential threat Sellafield presents to Ireland.

For the fourth time in a month, the accident-prone nuclear reprocessing plant on the Irish Sea is forced to reveal a new malfunction.

A break in a drainpipe at the plant has again resulted in a leak of hazardous radioactive material.

While reprocessing nuclear fuel can present dangers, Sellafield has a huge economic commitment to this process resulting in more discharges of radioactive waste.

Sellafield is owned by British Nuclear Fuels who claim that these discharges are within internationally recognised limits. However, a long series of accidents at the plant going back to the 1950s has given Sellafield a terrible reputation.

Jean Emery, campaign secretary of the local protest group ‘Cumbrians Opposed to a Radioactive Environment’ (CORE) puts these accidents at the plant down to poor management.

Earlier this month, Sellafield was put on an amber alert when plutonium was leaked from a faulty pump. As a result, seventy workers had to be screened for infection.  Three weeks ago, Sellafield engineers pumped around half a tonne of uranium into the Irish Sea.

Jean Emery believes that these accidents have been happening for years. The difference is that now details of the accidents are being leaked to the media.

The plant provides much employment for the region and in particular the nearby Seascale, a village that Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said she would be happy to live in expressing her confidence in safety at Sellafield. However, not everyone in Seascale is as confident as the British Prime Minister and are particularly concerned about the high cancer rates being recorded in the region.  Local GP Dr Barrie Walker points out that there are definite clusters of cancers in the region and specifically childhood cancer.

In Seascale, if you’re under the age of 12, you’ve got 10 to 15 times the risk of somebody living elsewhere of developing cancer.

The estuary mud at Ravenglass, near Sellafield is the most radioactive in Britain and the plutonium dust created ends up in houses nearby. A former resident of Ravenglass, Chris Merlin was forced out of his home five years ago fearing for the safety of his family as a result of this dust.

Radioactive waste from Sellafield travels to Ireland by sea and air. From the pipeline, it gets carried down the Irish Sea contaminating fish and beaches. When the winds are easterly, the waste from Sellafield’s chimneys blows across to Ireland.  In this context, British campaigners, like Jean Emery, are seeking Irish support in their campaign against Sellafield.

Us and the people of Ireland have the right to be angry and aggrieved against the people of this country and the government of this country for allowing the abomination of the pollution of the Irish Sea to go on.

In November 1983, Yorkshire Television produced a programme investigating the links between radioactive discharges from Sellafield and the high incidence of cancer in the region. As a result of public outcry following the broadcast, a committee of experts headed by Sir Douglas Black was established by the British government to enquire into the claims made in the programme. The result of the investigation was The Black Report published in July 1984.  The committee found that the link between Sellafield and childhood cancer could neither be dismissed nor proven. While the report was critical of some aspects of Sellafield, it gave assurances to people concerned over health risks from the plant. The report did however ask for a critical review of why the radioactive discharges from Sellafield are significantly higher than plants in other countries. The report also recommended that further research be carried out into the incidence of cancer in young people in the Cumbria region.

The problem for many is that there has been a history of non-disclosure of accidents and leaks at the plant. In November 1983, Greenpeace investigators ran into a huge slick of radioactive waste from Sellafield. A recent report also alleges that some staff at Sellafield are unstable and suffering from neurosis. Further revelations came out last Sunday when it was found the radioactive contamination around Sellafield was forty times higher than stated in the Black Report casting doubt over the findings. It also raises questions about how many other discharges and leaks have been covered up over the years. All of this adds to the growing fears about the operation of the plant.

There are increasing numbers of critics on both sides of the Irish Sea and in Europe who just want Sellafield to close down.

‘Today Tonight’ broadcast on 18 February 1986. The reporter is Joe Carroll.