The safe, secure stewardship of the Sellafield site is our overriding priority. It covers everything from the safety of our employees and care for the environment through to the secure management of nuclear materials. It underpins every decision we make.
This was our Environment, Health, Safety and Quality Director, Euan Hutton’s opening address to our senior management team at a recent meeting. It is also his starting point when he sat down with me to talk about our safety performance in the last financial year.
He continued: “For me the most important thing we do every day at Sellafield, and the reason that we’re all here, is to protect the environment by assuring nuclear safety. Keeping nuclear materials where they are meant to be. Our risk and hazard reduction work is also a key feature of our safety performance on two fronts. Firstly, reducing risk and hazards on the site – cleaning up our old buildings – makes Sellafield safer. We’re not in the position where, if we don’t like something, we can switch it off. In a number of our facilities, predominately our legacy storage buildings, we don’t have that option. We can’t just switch them off; we’ve got to do something about them. We also have to stay safe while doing this work”.
While our focus shifts more and more to this vital clean-up work, it is not the only activity carried out on the site. Euan is keenly aware of the potential for people to get hurt at work.
“On one site we are running nuclear facilities, waste treatment plants, waste storage plants, using chemicals and managing nuclear materials. Sellafield isn’t just a complicated nuclear site; it is also an industrial site. This involves design and build, commissioning, operations, decommissioning, waste management and demolition – every part of a project lifecycle. Our work requires radiological controls, environmental restoration, industrial safety challenges such as working at heights, working with asbestos and legionella control. Our daily working environment presents radiological, chemical and conventional safety hazards. It is fundamental that every single one of our 11,000 employees and upwards of 3,000 contractors go home safe every day.
All of these activities are underpinned by an equally stringent approach to quality. He continued: “By making sure we have the right quality service, and the right processes, we can do what we need to do and deliver return on investment. It is important too that our subcontractors understand where nuclear safety fits in, and that they continue to produce goods and materials to the right quality so that the things we get, do what they’re supposed to do.”
When I ask Euan how he thought we had performed across our various aspects of safety, he pauses.
“When you look at the cold statistics you have to say that our performance was mixed, with good performance in nuclear, environmental and radiological safety, but we missed targets in our industrial performance. When I look at what we delivered across the site in the same period though, I have to say that, overall our safety performance was good. We have built upon our previous strong environmental performance with no significant environmental events; overall discharges and disposals of waste are well within permit limits.”
Variations to site-wide permits have been made to ensure appropriate regulatory permissioning is in place to facilitate operations and decommissioning activities. This included permitting the Calder Interceptor Sewer to take low activity streams to benefit existing and future major projects. The variations also included a 10% reduction in alpha, beta and tritium limits for site aqueous discharges and consequential reductions in specific plant limits.
“Doses to the most exposed members of the public from operations at Sellafield remain very low at approximately 100 microsieverts (µSv)/yr. This compares to the average annual UK dose of around 2,700 µSv, of which 2,230 (µSv)/yr is derived from natural sources. Our radiological protection performance remains strong in a year of increased high hazard risk reduction work. All doses to the workforce remain less than 10 millisieverts (mSv)/yr with the average being less than 1 mSv. We also recently collected nine awards – eight gold and one silver – at the Royal Society for Prevention of Accidents Occupational Health and Safety Awards 2016. Many of our contractor colleagues also won awards for their safety performance at Sellafield. These successes are a reflection of the hard work put in by our employees and contractors in making Sellafield a safe place and of our collective commitment to continually improve safety.
“That said, while our industrial safety accident rates remain good when compared with comparable industry averages, it is disappointing that we missed the challenging targets that we set ourselves. We have a combined Sellafield Ltd and supply chain workforce of approximately 14,000 people. These people are delivering a wide range of work in a mix of office, radiological and industrial environments. During the year we had 45 recordable injuries. The majority of these injuries were strains and sprains, bone fractures and cuts, caused predominantly by slips, trips and manual handling. Our focus remains on preventing all injuries and near misses. With safety we strive for zero accidents, so there are always areas for improvement and we continually look at how we can perform better. We are continually assessing how we are performing, carrying out a wide range of internal regulation and assurance activities to help us assess how we’re doing and where we need to centre our attention and provide insights for continued improvement.”
An example of how we are striving to make these improvements is seen through the way we reacted to three International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale Level 1 events. What happened and what are we doing as a result?
“Of course we strive to have no events. We take all events seriously and address gaps and areas where we need to make improvements. There were three events which were rated as Level 1 on the International Nuclear Events Scale which means that they are classed as anomalies with no release of radioactivity or increased dose to individuals. We have investigated these events and are sharing learning across our business. The first event was a temporary power failure on 30 December 2015 which resulted in a loss of power to certain hydrogen analysers in the Magnox Swarf Storage Silo. There was no release of radioactivity or increased dose to individuals. A Board of Inquiry has been carried out and lessons learned are being shared across the organisation – focusing on equipment checks and risk mitigation measures.”
“The second incident occurred in the same facility. The silo has a forced ventilation system for hydrogen management which draws air via electrically powered fans through all compartments and then through a cleaning system before it is discharged to the atmosphere through a chimney stack. It also has an alternative ‘passive’ ventilation system installed as a safety measure in 2013 to mitigate against a prolonged loss of power.
“During routine maintenance work we exceeded the building’s 33-hour requirement for using passive ventilation only. Throughout this period of low ventilation flow, hydrogen levels were monitored throughout. There was no increase in hydrogen concentration and no increase in levels of airborne activity within the facility. An investigation has been carried out and lessons learned are being shared across the organisation – focusing on equipment checks and challenging assumptions. In March this year we carried out a new process whereby a radioactive source is temporarily introduced to a sealed cell in order to test the functionality of gamma monitors inside the cell. During the transfer of the source in to the cell one of our employees was briefly exposed to an elevated level of radioactivity. The employee is still well within our annual dose limits, which are lower than the permitted annual dose rate. Learning is being shared across the organisation and the process has been changed to include additional safeguards.”
Continual improvement is a subject that Euan and his safety teams are passionate about. What improvements have they made as a result of our safety performance over the year
“As I said earlier, our industrial safety performance is an area that we’re focused on improving. We have a plan in place to enhance our industrial safety performance focusing on improving standards, preventing accidents and reducing human errors. We have increased visibility of industrial safety with dashboards across our plants highlighting performance in this area; progress against gaps is also discussed at the management daily meeting. We’re also looking to make improvements to the effectiveness of the environmental case process and increase visibility of Best Available Techniques (BAT) governance arrangements within project and programme areas. We’re developing our management system to make it easier to use and to reduce the volume of documents, simplifying the process and aligning it to our changing business needs. The biggest improvement that we as a company can make to the continued safety of the site is to ensure that we continue to focus on looking after our site assets, accelerating the clean-up of our highest hazard facilities.”
In order to retrieve waste from our legacy ponds and silos we have to do things that have never been done before – how do we balance risk and safety?
“With some of our ageing assets we can’t employ a traditional, zero- based risk approach – we can’t switch off legacy plants. Therefore, to get work done with the urgency needed, we face the challenge of doing different work in a different way. This will involve balancing the transient increase in risk against reducing the overall risk and hazard whilst maintaining control. Time at risk is a critical factor in how we plan and execute the things that we have to do. We have to develop the boundaries that define nuclear safety in this context, deliver work closer to these boundaries than we have in the past whilst providing governance that we are making the right decisions and not going too far.”