Plutonium Found in Children's Teeth Near Sellafield Nuclear Facility

* Traces of plutonium have been found in teeth of children living near the Sellafield nuclear facility in Ireland. British Public Health Minister Melanie Johnson claims that the plutonium does not pose a health threat. Local public health experts challenge Johnson's opinion, saying that any amount of plutonium is carcinogenic. Activists and political leaders in the area are calling for a thorough investigation of the finding.

Sellafield is managed by British Nuclear Fuels, Ltd. (BNFL). BNFL was a part of the British government before being incorporated independently in 1971. BNFL operates nuclear facilities in several countries and is a member of the Louisiana Energy Services (LES) consortium that is currently planning to construct a uranium enrichment facility near Eunice, New Mexico. Sellafield performs many nuclear energy-related operations that use a variety of radionuclides.

BNFL representatives claim that the plutonium found in the teeth is a result of global fallout of nuclear weapons testing. However, the plutonium in the teeth features an isotopic identity separate from that of global fallout. Nevertheless, Johnson maintains that, as the plutonium is present only in the dead tooth enamel, it does not pose a health risk. However, critics argue that the plutonium's presence during the formation of the teeth may present a parallel inclusion in the childrens' bones, where there is a greater potential for cancer to develop.

The finding raises concerns about years of environmental neglect at Sellafield that has lead to plutonium levels in the area that are nearly 1,000 times that of fallout. Sellafield's operating license has been revoked twice for environmental violations. Furthermore, BNFL has a history of providing its cooperating agencies with intentionally incorrect information about its radioactive products.

Sellafield's environmental legacy has prompted concern about BNFL's contracting with the U.S. Department of Energy. BNFL has held contracts at Hanford, Savannah River Site, Rocky Flats and Fernald. Following a proposal to begin an incineration program at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory, the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability submitted a petition to then-Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson asking him to bar BNFL from any further activity in the U.S. due to its poor environmental record. The petition stated, "These activities, which have jeopardized worker and community health and safety around the world, should disqualify BNFL from participating in any work in the U.S. nuclear weapons complex."

As Energy Secretary, Richardson was sympathetic to activists' concerns, saying, "We are now placing BNFL under extra scrutiny because of these problems. I have been uneasy about some of their operations in the U.S." However, as Governor of New Mexico, Richardson has expressed support for BNFL's proposal for uranium enrichment, saying that he supports the facility as it would bring much-needed jobs to the Eunice area.

Activists hope that Governor Richardson will not forget his previous qualms about BNFL's operating practices in the face of economic development in Lea County. Joni Arends, of Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety, said, "Richardson's progression from Energy Secretary to Governor of New Mexico has not made BNFL a safer corporation. We urge him to keep his previous concerns in mind while considering BNFL's latest proposal."

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