A leak of highly radioactive nuclear fuel dissolved in concentrated nitric acid, enough to half fill an Olympic-size swimming pool, has forced the closure of the UK's Sellafield/Thorp nuclear fuels reprocessing plant.
The highly dangerous mixture, containing about 20 tonnes of uranium and plutonium fuel, has leaked through a fractured pipe into a huge stainless steel chamber which is so radioactive that it is impossible to enter. The fuel spill contains enough plutonium to make 20 nuclear weapons.
Recovering the liquids and fixing the pipes will take months and may require special robots to be built and sophisticated engineering techniques devised to repair the $3bn plant -even as Tony Blair faces a decision on whether to build a new generation of nuclear power stations.
A problem at the plant was first noticed on April 19 when operators could not account for all the spent fuel that had been dissolved in nitric acid. Remote cameras scanning the interior of the plant found the leak.
The managing director of British Nuclear Group, Sellafield, Barry Snelson, who ordered the plant to be closed down, said: 'Let me reassure people that the plant is in a safe and stable state.'"