30 kg plutonium missing from Sellafield nuclear plant

30 kilos of plutonium went missing from the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing plant in 2003/4 according to the BBC News this morning. That’s enough to make 7 atom bombs! So where did it go?

BBC News says says it’s “just on paper”:

There is no evidence to suggest that any of the apparent losses reported were real losses… “The figures were all within international standards of expected measurement accuracies,” said a spokesman for the plant’s operators, BNG [British Nuclear Group].

Missing plutonium ‘just on paper’, BBC News, 17 February, 2005

Well, that’s all right then!

Following BBC Editorial Guidelines, the BBC “balances” BNG‘s positive spin with a statement from Liberal Democrat spokesman, Norman Baker:

If the figures are wrong then this looks like serious incompetence from an industry that deals with highly dangerous resources.

Missing plutonium ‘just on paper’, BBC News, 17 February, 2005

That’s rubbish, obviously!

Nobody said the figures are wrong. They’re “all within international standards of expected accuracies“, as the BNG spokesman has already said. So no way can that be called “incompetence“. What it might be called is just one more example of the BBC working with corporate lobbyists to hide the elephant in the room.

And what elephant is that? you might ask. Well, just do the maths.

If the measurement accuracy is ± 30kg there’s no reason to suspect any material has left the site, but there’s no reason to suspect it HASN’T either.

If it was just a measurement error then some years would show losses and some would show gains, with the average tending towards zero over time. So is that what happened? Are there some years where the the figures showed gains rather than losses?

The BBC and BNG don’t say. What they do say, as a footnote at the end of the piece, is that “in 2003 BNG revealed 19kg of plutonium was unaccounted for at the plant“.

So the previous year showed a loss too! Which would tend to suggest it’s not so much of an accounting error as a real loss.

To know for certain we would need to see a simple table of losses or gains of plutonium at Sellafield over a number of years. So where can we find that?

Googling “Sellafield plutonium loss gain” (without the quotes) reveals a Daily Mail piece from the same day using many of the same words and phrases as the BBC.

The Daily Mail hasn’t bothered to find a spokesman to “balance” the BNG spin, but then they don’t have to. They aren’t a publicly-funded broadcaster. Buying the Daily Mail is a choice. If you refuse to buy the Mail you you can’t be locked up, but if you refuse to buy the  BBC licence you can! That’s why broadcasting regulations need to be much stricter than press regulations. If you have no choice whether you buy the BBC or not, then they have to be more “balanced” about what they say.

But the Daily Mail report does include one vital detail the BBC left out:

We have published these figures since the ’70s,” the spokeswoman said. “Some years there is an apparent gain, some years there is an apparent loss.

Plutonium ‘missing’ from Sellafield plant, Mail Online, 17 February 2005

Now we’re talking! So some years show a loss. But how much of a loss exactly? Does the gains cancel out the losses or don’t they? That’s the crucial question. But none of the professional journalists who covered this story seems to have thought of asking that.

What we need is the figures for gains and losses year-by-year. So where are they? Why does the Google search show lots of different versions of exactly the same story, but no figures

OK. So Google isn’t perfect. The search shows nearly half a million results. How many pages do we have to go through before we find what we need? (I gave up after the first 10. If anyone else can find a link, please leave a comment below.)

But there’s one other elephant in the room completely ignored by any of the mainstream media. How dangerous is plutonium exactly? If 30 kg had leaked out into the environment, what would be the effects?

If you Google “plutonium maximum permissible levels” you’ll discover it’s a very complicated subject (well it would be, wouldn’t it?). According to the conclusions of one study, Plutonium – Health Implications for Man: A Review, produced by Zoya Drozdova of the University of Idaho for the Los Alamos nuclear lab in 2000,:

… scientists still refer to the lack of data on many aspects of plutonium behavior that prevents its comprehensive toxicological assessment.

Plutonium – Health Implications for Man: A Review, Zoya Drozdova, University of Idaho, December 2000

You whaaaat! 60 years after plutonium was first manufactured and spread around the world in huge quantities in nuclear bombs and reactors, and we still haven’t got round to collecting the necessary date to figure out how dangerous it actually is!

What is certain is that plutonium remains active for hundreds of thousands of years. Longer than any known civilisation on earth. And particles inhaled or ingested can cause cancer. If 30kg did find its way into the environment, approximately how many people would be at risk?

The Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility (CCNR)  wrote a letter to the Atomic Energy Control Board (AECB) asking exactly that question. You can see the results here.

According the their calculations, if there is an “accidental” release of 30kg of plutonium to the environment there is a potential for 300 billion overdoses. That’s more than 42 times the population of the planet!!!

OK. So that’s assuming all the plutonium is evenly distributed and evenly absorbed by the whole of the earth’s population. But even if we reduce those figures 1,000 times, that still puts more than 300 million, or approximately 5 times the population of the UK, at risk.

Even if that figure is considered to be a wild approximation it’s pretty clear that we might expect cancer levels to have increased significantly since plutonium was first manufactured, as indeed they have.

Which is why the phrase “no safe levels” was originally coined back in the 1970s to describe radiation. Now the corporate spin doctors and lobbyists who manage the messages* the BBC reads out on the news, have succeeded in having the “no safe levels” warning transferred from radiation and attached to secondary tobacco smoke instead! So, as far as the general public is concerned, any rise in cancer levels is down to cigarette smokers, not the nuclear industry. Clever, or wot?

Which all adds up to more than one elephant in the room, don’t you think?

* Messaging is the process of creating a consistent story around a product, person, company or service. Messaging aims to avoid having readers receive contradictory or confusing information that will instil doubt in their purchasing choice or other decisions that have an impact on the company. Brands aim to have the same problem statement, industry viewpoint or brand perception shared across sources and media.

Public Relations – Wikipedia

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