Nuclear train accident in Britain latest of a recent series

David Lowry with Mycle Schneider

A train transporting an empty nuclear transport wagon collided with a car straddling the level crossing at Silverdale on the Cumbria/Lancashire border in the UK at around 1900 hours on 14 January 2014. Although the car driver was uninjured as he managed to abandon the vehicle, it was hit hard by the train from Sellafield, which carried the car around 300 metres down the track, but there was no derailment of the locomotive or nuclear wagon. DRS (Direct Rail Services) - a wholly owned subsidiary of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) - said the locomotive only suffered "minor damage."

This accident followed shortly after a rail freight wagon carrying nuclear waste was derailed at a depot in Drancy, 3 km northeast of Paris on 23 December 2013. The wagon carried spent fuel from the Nogent nuclear power plant destined for AREVA's reprocessing plant at La Hague in Normandy. Although no leakage of radiation was measured at the accident location, the Nuclear Safety Authority (ASN) reported that subsequent testing by AREVA revealed a hotspot on the rail car that delivered a dose of 56 microsievert. An investigation into the origin of the contamination is underway.

In the UK, regional campaign group, Cumbrians Opposed to a Radioactive Environment (CORE), reported that nuclear transport trains routinely leave the Sellafield site on a number of days each week, returning empty spent fuel flasks to nuclear power stations around the UK where they are subsequently refilled and returned to Sellafield for the spent nuclear fuel to be reprocessed. The NDA told CORE that the nuclear transport wagon, being hauled by a single locomotive, that the train was bound for the Oldbury nuclear power station (which shares the Berkeley railhead) to collect spent fuel for Sellafield.

The Silverdale accident follows the accident outside Barrow docks last September involving three nuclear transport wagons on a spur line, with each wagon carrying an empty spent fuel flask being returned from Japan. Two of these wagons were derailed, causing a partial blockage of the main railway line serving Barrow. The wagons were reported have been travelling at approximately 5 mph when the derailment occurred. The third transport flask had remained upright and, following the rectification of the partially derailed flask, the two flasks were returned to the Ramsden Dock nuclear shipping terminal at Barrow for inspection. Righting the fully derailed flask took a further four days because of what was described by Network Rail as a process that was "extremely challenging due to the location and the ground conditions in the area". According to CORE, an in-house investigation by DRS concluded that the derailment occurred as a result of an error by train crew.

Wide concerns have been raised over nuclear transports in the UK this year. Councilors are being urged to object to plans to transport 70 lorry loads of nuclear waste from the Oldbury nuclear power plant site in South Gloucestershire to Hinkley Point in Somerset, both in the south west of England. The NDA argues the move makes financial sense and is safe. Approximately 144 tons of the nuclear waste would be transported between the two sites from 2020 to 2022, the NDA said.

At the other end of the UK, discussions are underway about how to move 26 tons of "exotic fuel", including plutonium and highly-enriched uranium, from the UKAEA's Dounreay site in Caithness, on Scotland's northern shore, to the NDA's Sellafield complex in Cumbria. It would travel by rail through some densely populated areas across central Scotland. The NDA is reported to have given assurances that the trailers are "virtually indestructible".