In a case which signals a judicial crackdown on the enforcement of environmental protection and health and safety rules, the owner of the Sellafield nuclear plant in Cumbria has failed in an appeal against a £700,000 fine imposed after low-level radioactive waste was sent to landfill.
Condemning Sellafield Limited, the nation’s top judge, the Lord Chief Justice Lord Thomas, said that there had been a ‘lax and complacent custom’ within the company when it came to separating safe from nuclear-tainted waste and that the company’s senior management bore a share of the responsibility for that.
The company was handed the fine, plus costs of £72,000, at Carlisle Crown Court in June 2013 following a prosecution by the Environment Agency and the Health and Safety Executive. The seven offences admitted by the company related to four bags of plastic and metal waste which had been consigned to a landfill site although they should have been sent to a low level waste repository.
The company urged the Court of Appeal to reduce the fine, arguing that it was ‘manifestly excessive’. The lapses had in fact almost certainly caused no harm to anyone and those who handled the bags had been exposed to no greater risk than an aircraft passenger would experience on a flight to Paris.
However, in dismissing the appeal, Lord Thomas said, “The failure was easily avoidable and could and should have been detected very quickly; there was the clearest negligence. The sentencing judge found that there had been a custom in the company which was too lax and complacent and that senior management must bear a share of the responsibility. We can see no basis for criticising that finding.”
The fine imposed was a little more than a week’s profit for Sellafield Limited, about 2 per cent of its weekly income, and had been carefully pitched to ‘bring home’ to its directors and professional shareholders the seriousness of the offences committed and to provide them with a ‘real incentive’ to improve safety standards. Lord Thomas warned the company that, if the fine did not have the desired effect, it could expect tougher penalties for any future breaches.
The company had installed a screening system in May 2009 which was meant to ensure separation of safe and toxic waste. Thousands of bags of waste went through the system every hour but a small number which should not have been passed made their way to landfill. The error in the setup of the screening devices was discovered by chance in April 2010 when, during a training exercise, a bag of waste with a radiation dosage of 41 microsieverts per hour was passed through them and wrongly classified as exempt waste.
Once alerted to the problem, Sellafield did all in its power to ensure that no-one was harmed and Lord Thomas observed, “It is as near certain as can be that none has.” However, he added, “Measurements taken at the landfill site vastly exceeded the low level permitted to be deposited on the site…three of the bags were within the lowest category of toxic waste – low level radioactive waste – and one was within the next category, intermediate level radioactive waste.
“There was agreed expert evidence that had the problem not been discovered for a long time – years – and non-exempt waste of this category had been regularly handled, there would have been a very small but perceptible increase in the risk of death from cancer of those handling it.”