The route for trains carrying highly radioactive nuclear waste runs over half a mile (nearly 1km) through the Olympic site at Stratford. The trains present a hazard in three ways: they continuously emit radiation; they are at risk from accident, and from terrorist attack - if the containers of waste were breached they would emit high-level radiation which could cause thousands of deaths downwind. During the Olympic games, the risk of a terrorist attack will be significantly increased. But this is also true during the current period of construction work on the Olympic site, when there is much heavy machinery on site and many workers on different projects.
There was a public meeting of the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA) and the Planning Decisions Team on 14th August 2008. Members of the public who had previously requested to speak were allowed only five minutes each to present their concerns and evidence. The concerns of NTAG were put to the officials, but not one of them asked a single question or made a comment in response. This was despite there being no mention of trains carrying nuclear waste running through the Olympics site in any of the publications of the ODA, including a 400 page report. On a large map in a leaflet "Your Park", published by the ODA in September 2007, the North London Line (along which the trains travel) is hardly visible. Hackney Wick station is not shown, even though the map shows other rail stations and even footpaths. It seems the problem has been air-brushed out of existence.
The five-minute presentation by NTAG mentioned the superficial (and unpublished) risk assessment of the transport of nuclear waste through London, which was carried out by Serco Assurance on behalf of the then Mayor of London for the GLA. Serco is an interested party (see below) and they specifically excluded consideration of a terrorist attack on the trains, by choosing to use - in their own words - a "methodology of study not suitable to assess frequencies of deliberate attack".
Serco are joint managers of the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston, along with BNFL and Lockheed-Martin. At the time of producing the 'report' on the transport of nuclear waste they had an interest in buying out the BNFL share. BNFL owns the Sellafield site at which this nuclear waste is processed. It is thus in Serco's interest to minimise the perception of hazard of transporting nuclear waste and its reprocessing.
A journalist for the East London Advertiser later interviewed the ODA planning chair Lorraine Baldry (present at the meeting) for her response to the presentations. She said "It's just low-grade waste" and "Even if there was a spillage, the effects would not be that great." This illustrates how badly informed the ODA are, since the nuclear industry classifies the waste carried by these trains as "high-level" radioactive waste, and any breach of the flasks could have devastating effects: large-scale evacuation, and increased risk of cancers and genetic damage from the radiation released.
Independent nuclear expert Dr John Large said of Lorraine Baldry's comments: "That's absolute nonsense. To give you an idea how incredibly intensely dangerous this is, if you put the fuel in the middle of a field and asked a sprinter to start running towards it as fast as he could from 100 yards away, he'd be dead before he reached it. If that's the attitude of the people in charge of health and safety for the Olympics park, then that's extremely worrying." He said worst case scenarios could mean up to 350,000 people evacuated from Tower Hamlets, Newham and beyond. "The emergency services would be overwhelmed - they simply would not be able to cope", Dr Large added. "If you put an international event on like the Olympics, there's obviously a chance it will attract terrorist attack, but the nuclear industry feels it's immune from one."
It is not only the ODA who are ignorant of the dangers. A spokeswoman for the Olympics minister, Tessa Jowell, said "low-level" nuclear waste had been transported through Britain for 40 years, and "Construction activities on the Olympic park will not change the risk profile of the transportation of materials."
Although the greatest likelihood of a terrorist attack on the trains will be during the Olympics, there is also an increased risk during the construction period. There will be up to 20,000 workers on the site. Terrorists dressed as construction workers would have little difficulty in gaining access to the site, and could conceivably make use of the heavy machinery on site to halt or derail a train. (In July 2006 two journalists dressed in hard hats and fluorescent jackets had no trouble planting a fake bomb on a train carrying nuclear waste in a marshalling yard at Willesden, supposedly under "very stringent security".)
At present the transports from Sizewell nuclear power station are suspended due to a fault in the reprocessing plant at Sellafield. The used fuel rods are being stored on-site at Sizewell but when transports resume they are likely to be more frequent - to clear the backlog.
The transport of nuclear waste through the site is not the only issue concerned with radiation.
1. [reported on BBC Sport, Thursday 14 July 2005]
Olympic bid officials did not know that there had been a nuclear reactor on part of the Olympic site. This was a small research reactor used by Queen Mary's College, situated by Marshgate Lane, and decommissioned in 1982. Mr Bob Blackman, Tory economic development spokesman, brought this to the attention of Olympics officials in July 2005. Tories say they did not raise the nuclear reactor issue earlier, in case it damaged the capital's Olympic bid. Although it is probable that the reactor site was satisfactorily decontaminated, the worrying thing is that Olympics officials were totally ignorant of this possible source of contamination.
2. [reported in the Guardian, Friday 26 January 2007]
In January 2007 residents on a housing estate at Clays Lane, to be demolished to make way for the Olympic village, sought a court injunction to stop tests being carried out to assess the dangers from radioactive waste dumped beneath the site. They were concerned that the process of testing the ground might disturb any radioactive material buried below and pose a health risk, and wanted testing stopped until they were rehoused.
A radiological survey of the area carried out by the consultants WS Atkins in 1993 revealed "the presence of elevated levels of [radiation] activity above the general background level for that area". Levels of radioactivity three times the normal background level were identified close to where local government records suggest the waste was dumped, in a cesspit which had served a row of now demolished terrace houses on Temple Mill Lane. Documents seen by the Guardian say waste contaminated by an isotope of thorium, a nuclear fuel which can cause cancer, was dumped on the site in east London in 1959. An internal memorandum written by the Lee Valley Regional Parks Authority valuer and estates surveyor in 1972 recommended that the ground over the waste should not be disturbed without further tests.
John Large said that the real problem with the Olympic village site is that no one knows exactly what waste might have been dumped there in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The Radioactive Substances Act of 1960 tightened significantly the laws on dumping nuclear waste. But there was a five-year period, before the Act took effect in 1965, in which waste could still be dumped under the old rules.
3. There are several other concerns about the site not fully addressed by the organizations responsible for its creation and development; for example: