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Sellafield: ‘bottomless pit of hell, money and despair’ at Europe’s most toxic nuclear site

<span>Composite: Guardian Design/PA</span>
Composite: Guardian Design/PA

Ministers who visit Sellafield for the first time are left with no illusions about the challenge at Europe’s most toxic nuclear site.

One former UK secretary of state described it as a “bottomless pit of hell, money and despair”, which sucked up so much cash that it drowned out many other projects the economy could otherwise benefit from.

For workers, it is a place of fascination and fear.

“Entering Sellafield is like arriving in another world: it’s like nuclear Narnia,” according to one senior employee. “Except you don’t go through a cupboard, you go through checkpoints while police patrol with guns.” Others call it nuclear Disneyland.

Sellafield, a huge nuclear dump on the Cumbrian coast in north-west England, covers more than 6 sq km (2 sq miles). It dates to the cold war arms race, and was the original site for the development of nuclear weapons in the UK in 1947, manufacturing plutonium. It was home to the world’s first full-scale commercial nuclear power station, Calder Hall, which was commissioned in 1956 and ceased generating electricity in 2003.

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It has been at the centre of disaster and controversy, including the Windscale fire of 1957. The blaze was considered one of the worst nuclear incidents in Europe at the time, and carried a plume of toxic smoke across to the continent. The milk from cows on 200 sq miles of Cumbrian farmland was condemned as radioactive.

Sellafield began receiving radioactive waste for disposal in 1959, and has since taken thousands of tons of material, from spent fuel rods to scrap metal, which is stored in concrete silos, artificial ponds and sealed buildings. A constant programme of work is required to keep its crumbling buildings safe and create new facilities to contain the toxic waste. The site is expected to be in operation until at least 2130.

The estimated cost of running and cleaning up the site have soared. Sellafield is so expensive to maintain that it is considered a fiscal risk by budgetary officials. The latest estimate for cleaning up the Britain’s nuclear sites is £263bn, of which Sellafield is by far the biggest proportion. However, adjustments to its treatments in accounts can move the dial by more than £100bn, more than the UK’s entire annual deficit. The cost of decommissioning the site is a growing liability that does not count towards the calculation of the UK’s net debt.

Sellafield is owned by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, a quango sponsored and funded by the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero that is tasked with cleaning 17 sites across the UK.

The site has a workforce of 11,000, with its own railway, road network, laundry services for normal and potentially radioactive garments, and its own police force with more than 80 dogs. It has almost 1,000 buildings.

Sellafield’s impact on the environment has been a longstanding concern. Local animals, including swallows, have been found to carry radioactive traces from the site with them. Debate rages locally over just how toxic the “atomic kittens” – stray cats that inhabit the site – may be. Sellafield says cats are screened for radioactivity before they are rehomed.

The activities at the site are a matter of significant scrutiny to countries including the US, Norway and Ireland, given that Sellafield hosts the largest store of plutonium in the world and takes waste from countries such as Italy and Sweden.

Interactive

Norwegians have long feared the effects of an accident at the site, with modelling suggesting that prevailing south-westerly winds could carry radioactive particles from a large incident at the site across the North Sea, with potentially devastating consequences for its food production and wildlife.

Norway and Ireland were involved in efforts to halt the release of technetium-99, a radioactive metal, into the sea by Sellafield. In 2003, Norway accused Sellafield of ruining its lobster business.

Jobs at Sellafield are often considered to be a golden ticket, according to sources, as the site offers long-term employment with above-average wages in a region with few big employers.

Sellafield is at the heart of the so-called “nuclear coast” in West Cumbria, sandwiched between the Lake District national park and the Irish Sea. At its southern end, BAE Systems in Barrow-in-Furness builds nuclear submarines. Land neighbouring the site has long been earmarked for a new nuclear power station but plans for Moorside collapsed in 2018 when the Japanese conglomerate Toshiba walked away.

Interactive

The Sellafield site is a significant source of economic support for the region, and sources described a close-knit community where everyone either works at Sellafield or knows someone who does.

Well-paid managers at Sellafield typically reside in the rural area to the south of the site, as well as idyllic villages including Gosforth, where house prices average £311,000, according to Rightmove. Workington and Whitehaven, to the north, are host to the rank and file, a source says, with average house prices of £133,000 and £155,000 respectively.

Sellafield’s former chief executive Martin Chown was paid between £330,000 and £334,999 a year. Graduates can get a starting salary of £36,556; managers earn almost £50,000 on average; and plant engineers are typically on £63,000, according to the jobs website Indeed. The average salary in the north-west in 2022 was £30,248, according to the Office for National Statistics.