Panorama’s Sellafield programme – a representative picture?

Last night’s Panorama programme set out to inform the public about the hidden dangers of the Sellafield site and to show this was a result of mismanagement. At first glance, the programme succeeded to convey its message, but it was short of facts to support their arguments and it also failed to identify some of the root courses of the real problems facing the site.

While it was accurate to highlight mismanagement in the most serious hazard areas and to highlight bad practices of dumping nuclear waste into open ponds without proper documentation listing what is in them. It has to be recognised that this is historical behaviour dating from the 1950s. The current site operators are progressively clearing these high hazard areas and reducing the risk they pose, which wasn’t the impression conveyed by the programme failing to reflect actual management policies and practice.

There were some genuine issues raised, such as telling the Public Accounts Committee that a facility was operating as normal when the safety systems were back to normal but operations were not. While this was not a directly untrue response to the committee the members could (and the Chair clearly does) feel it to be misleading. The issue could have been handled better as one lesson most of the industry has learnt is that total openness leads to greater levels of trust.

However, overall the programme was clearly pursuing its own agenda. As shown in its conclusion that Sellafield was the nuclear site that can’t get the basics right. Given the time that Sellafield and the NDA had taken with the programme makers, explaining the complexity of the decommissioning issues on the site, they must have known that this was an extremely misleading conclusion.