The bags should have been sent to a specialist facility that treats and stores low level radioactive waste.
Carlisle Crown Court heard that a number of significant management and operational failings at Sellafield Limited led to the incorrect disposal of the waste at the Lillyhall landfill site in Workington. This breached the conditions of Sellafield’s environmental permit and the Carriage of Dangerous Goods and Use of Transportable Pressure Equipment Regulations.
Sellafield found the error was caused by the wrong configuration of a new monitor which passed the bags as ‘general’ waste making them exempt from strict disposal controls.
The Environment Agency and ONR carried out a thorough investigation and have taken action to minimise the chances of this type of incident happening again, including working together to ensure Sellafield makes further improvements to its leadership and management systems, the shortcomings of which were highlighted in this event.
The bags were retrieved from the landfill and returned to Sellafield for correct disposal. Extensive reassurance monitoring was carried out by a number of organisations, including the Environment Agency, Waste Recycling Group Limited (operators of the landfill at the time) and Sellafield Limited,which confirmed that there was no contamination left at the site or on the landfill equipment and no harm was caused to the environment or the public.
In summing up, the judge hearing the case recognised that the mistakes indicated basic management failures and in this type of industry, it should not be the case that lessons were learnt after the event.
Ian Parker, Nuclear Regulation Manager for the Environment Agency, said: “Our overriding aim in regulating the nuclear industry is to protect people and the environment from the release of radioactive wastes into the environment.
“While this incident did not lead to any significant harm being caused to the public or to the environment, the failings by Sellafield Ltd that led to the incident were serious and we consider that on this occasion, Sellafield Limited fell well short of the high standards which we expect from them.
“For us, the most important thing is that Sellafield Ltd has learnt the lessons from this and put improvements in place to minimise the chances of this type of incident happening again.”
Ian Barlow from the Office for Nuclear Regulation, said: “We require the nuclear industry to control its hazards and ensure it has effective procedures in place for transporting and disposing of all forms of radioactive material, including waste. That hasn’t happened here: a failure in leadership and management resulted in the uncontrolled transport and disposal of low-level waste in the public domain.
“Our decision to prosecute and the £700,000 fine imposed in court today show that this will not be tolerated.
“Where it is necessary to do so, ONR will not hesitate to take enforcement action to ensure the protection of people and society from the hazards of the nuclear industry.”