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Recklessness and deceit in Britain's nuclear industry

Britain's long-term management of its atomic programs is an international disgrace. Its Sellafield reactor fuel reprocessing plant is the world's worst radioactive polluter of the sea, even when running normally. It also has had a continuing series of accidents and leaks.

In at least one serious case, responsible officials lied about the extent of the leak to the government's own radiological safety team. And in Australia, Britain conducted weapons tests with culpable disregard for public safety. Their radioactive residue is an environmental menace to this day. Dedicated workers, poor leaders

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These are not exaggerated accusations of environmental activists. They're the result of careful scientific and engineering investigation, the conclusion of official commissions, and, in one case, the verdict of a court of law.

For a reporter who has covered Britain's civil atomic program since shortly after its inception, this is a very sad unfoldment to report. The many fine men and women working in that program, whom I have met over the past 34 years, have shown competence, integrity, and personal dedication that deserved better leadership than they apparently have been given.

A vignette involving Sellafield illustrates the point.

Formerly known as Windscale, the installation began as a military production facility. It reprocessed uranium fuel from two on-site reactors, extracting plutonium for bombs.

The Ministry of Defense turned Windscale over to the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority in the early 1950s. Since then, it has reprocessed fuel from both military plutonium-production reactors and civilian power plants. Plutonium is stored both for weapons and for eventual use as fuel in advanced nuclear power plants. In the 1970s, British Nuclear Fuels (BNF) -- a government corporation -- took over Windscale.

BNF runs the now greatly expanded facility under the name Sellafield, reprocessing reactor fuel from several European countries and Japan as well as from Britain itself.

The complex has discharged mildly radioactive liquid waste into the Irish Sea for decades. In 1957 a fire in one of the military reactors released radioactive iodine. Health authorities destroyed 2 million liters of possibly contaminated locally produced milk.

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Both the Irish Sea discharges and this accident were lively topics at the second United Nations ``Atoms for Peace'' conference held in 1958 at Geneva. A British radiological health official tried hard to convince a skeptical international press corps that the discharges were benign and that any radioactivity from the accident had been safely contained.

I later visited him at his laboratory where he explained, with obvious sincerity, how carefully Britain managed such hazards.

Now, 28 years later, a parliamentary commission says Britain's radioactive waste management has been ``amateurish, haphazard, and ad hoc.'' It finds that the Sellafield discharges in particular have made the Irish Sea the most radioactive stretch of water in the world. Polonium leak a 26-year secret

As for the 1957 accident, it came to light in 1983 that radiological health officials were not told that, in addition to local contamination from iodine, the fire released radioactive polonium over a large area of the country. To mention polonium would have revealed the method used for making Britain's hydrogen bomb. So the information was suppressed.

This is not an isolated incident. BNF analysts recently reported that more than 10 times as much liquid uranium waste was discharged from Windscale in the early 1950s than had been estimated.

An Australian royal commission found that official British secrecy had covered up the fact that weapons tests held decades ago were conducted with blatant disregard for safety of the aborgines. The site today still is dangerously contaminated with plutonium and other radioactive materials. Australia now is trying to get Britain to compensate the aborigines and pay for site cleanup.

To return to Sellafield, the site has had a succession of unacceptable leaks. In one incident, the Carlisle Crown Court last year found BNF guilty of poor waste management.

This is not just a domestic British issue, as the Irish government has pointed out. It involves the safety of innocent people and of the common environment.

There is a long history of deceit and reckless disregard for that safety on the part of many British governments. The Thatcher government should face up to this shameful record, acknowledge the mistakes, and correct what needs correcting in the management of Great Britain's atomic programs.

A Tuesday column. Robert C. Cowen is the Monitor's natural science editor.

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