Digging out an old report partly as it is topical, and partly as I was talking about it the other night and got a bit nostalgic for one of the best weekend’s I have had.
Some years ago on another website I used to organise group events which usually gained us access to places not really open to the casual tourist, or if they were “tourist traps”, I would usually arrange for something extra to be added.
One such trip was a whole day getting a guided tour around Sellafield – not the visitor centre, but the actual nuclear facility itself.
The tour was arranged for July 2005, but the London bombings meant all secure sites were off-limits to visitors, so the tour eventually took place almost a year later once things had calmed down a bit.
Spent the weekend in Carlise, with its lovely Castle and Cathedral – and at the time, the only Wi-Fi being sharing a weak service right next to the hotel reception desk. Essential as several people dropped out of the tour at the very last minute, so I think we ended up with just 8 people turning up at Sellafield.
Bit embarrassing – but they didn’t seem to mind.
Here is the report I wrote on 11th June 2006.
A day at the Sellafield Nuclear Reprocessing Center getting a personalised tour of the facility.
All started with a supper on Thursday evening at an Italian restaurant in Carlisle that hadn’t changed since the 1970’s – along with the 3 ft long pepper grinder.
The following morning, we congregated at Sellafield Visitor Centre – some us having gone to the main entrance, also marked as “visitors” and then having to arrange for transport to the correct entrance.
Following a good overview presentation of the facility, we went to the first factory, where hot nitric acid with nuclear residues are mixed with glass and poured into containers for storage.
Here, we had to get prepared to enter a radioactive area – this involved taking our shoes off, putting on large “hiking” socks that went over our trousers then going over to a bench.
Here we had to put shoes on, but our feet could not touch the other side of the barrier, and the shoes cannot touch the safe side. All to prevent contamination – then overalls and hard hats.
The temperature of the containers is cooled down to a mere 250 degrees Celsius in a chamber which is protected by thick concrete and 1.5 mtr thick glass windows to prevent radiation leakage.
Radiation behind the walls was 230 sieverts – 5 will kill you on the spot. Fortunately, where we stood, was just 1 millionth of a sievert.
After seeing around the facility and how all the containers are prepared for storage, we went up to the huge storage centre – a room with loads of deep tubes in the concrete into which the containers are lowered and plugged with a 6 ft rubber plug.
We got to stand on the top of this – said to be the most radioactive place in the world !
You can still feel the heat from the nuclear waste – even through the massive rubber plug.
Now, the “fun” bit – getting back out.
Again, back to the bench and slip out of shoes then swing over the barrier, making sure we don’t touch the floor with our socks.
Then a chap came along with a Geiger counter and ran that over each of us in turn to check we were safe.
Then another check – imagine a huge airport style metal detector, except you have to stand in it, slide your hands deep into two holes and get close to the wall to be checked, then turn around and do the same with your back.
Only then can you enter the safe zone and leave.
A quick bus ride (v hot inside) to THORP, where nuclear waste arrives and is dealt with.
We got to have a look at the arrivals centre where the famous white flasks arrive by train and are opened to remove the nuclear fuel and waste inside. We then went round to see the media-friendly water tanks where the nuclear fuel is stored for up to 6 years while it cools down.
We had a much needed break for sarnies and lunch – and a sit down to rest weary feet – then back to THORPE to see more.
Again, suit up and put on the big socks.
Here, the guides had a special belt containing a small amount of gold in it.
This was a place where a potential “criticality” could occur – and if that happened, the gold could be checked to see how bad the radiation dose was that we suffered from – aka, how many days of life was left to us.
It was the only place where in the event of an evacuation, that the guides were allowed to leave us – as you just run as fast as possible to get out !
Fortunately, nothing that drastic occurred.
Anyhow, here we went into the fuel storage rooms and stood high above the water tanks while the processes involved in storing the waste for years were explained.
Leaving the area before we fainted from the heat, we were taken round to see the rooms where the fuel is chopped up into small chunks and then dropped into the hot nitric acid we had seen earlier in the morning.
Again – huge concrete walls and 1.5 mtr thick glass protected us from the massive levels of radiation.
beep beep beep beep beep beep beep beep beep beep beep beep beep beep beep beep beep beep beep beep beep beep beep beep beep beep beep beep beep beep beep beep beep beep beep beep beep
What was that ?
Well, throughout the facility – there are sirens and every 10 seconds (or so) they all beep, loudly.
This is to ensure that the alarm system is working – and I really wouldn’t want to work in such an environment. Although apparently long term workers get used to it.
The place is far more industrial than I expected, being more like a factory than the white suited scientist dominated place I would have presumed had anyone asked me prior to the visit.
Anyhow – a wander round the massive facility to stand next to a wall, behind which some nitric acid had been leaking from – this is a topic of current news. The leak was contained, and dealt with safely – it just took them too long to notice it happening.
We also got an overview of how the uranium and plutonium are separated from the acid bath before the waste leftovers are taken to be sealed up in glass.
Amazingly, they are able to recover 96% of the uranium and reuse it as more fuel for power stations.
We also got close to the entrance to where the plutonium facility exists, but we had nothing like enough security clearance to go in there.
Leaving – again, lots of fun with the shoes and socks – and the radiation checks to be allowed to leave.
And then out of the building, and bus tour round the site to see the place before heading back to the visitor center and leaving.
Quite interestingly, as Sellafield no longer actually generates power, just outside the fence is a separate gas powered electricity power station – so the entire nuclear facility is actually powered by North Sea Gas !
Lots of police with machine guns protecting the place, and loads of security to get in and out of buildings.
We also had to all carry around a small radiation badge which will be checked over the next few days to ensure our exposure remained within safe limits – otherwise we get ominous letters in the post.
No photos were permitted inside the facility.
Overall – an absolutely fascinating visit and a real eye-opener as to the industrial processes of nuclear waste storage.
I learnt a heck of a lot in a short period of time.
Just one final point, don’t go all the way there for the Visitors Center, it is aimed at 5 yr olds.
Addendum: The IanVisits weekly newsletter is getting to the point where the readership size is large enough for me to start booking events and tours of my own again. Need to sort out my current financial woes, then I should be looking to start organising exclusive tours again maybe later this summer.