LONDON (AP) — The largest nuclear site in Europe was being operated with reduced staffing Friday after monitoring found higher-than-normal levels of radiation.
The Sellafield nuclear reprocessing plant in northwestern England, which also includes two former nuclear power plants that are currently being decommissioned, said in a statement that elevated levels of radioactivity had been found at one of the on-site radiation monitors at the north end of the site. It added that there was "no risk to the general public or workforce."
Only essential workers are being asked to report for shifts Friday, but the station is continuing to operate normally, it said.
"Levels of radioactivity detected are above naturally occurring radiation but well below that which would call for any actions to be taken by the workforce on or off the site," the company said.
The company said the staffing decision was made to allow it to "focus on investigation and avoid disruption on and off the site."
Prof. Richard Wakeford of the Dalton Nuclear Institute at the University of Manchester told the Associated Press it is unusual that the higher-than-normal levels were reported only at an isolated area to the north of the site but not in the main buildings.
"It could be an instrument fault, it's very difficult to say," he said. "If it isn't, then you have to determine the cause. It's not easy. Sellafield is an immensely complex site. There is a lot of decommissioning going on there, and when they built these plants in the '50s, '60s and '70s they were not thinking of decommissioning. It's very difficult."
He said there have been "occasional" releases of small amounts of radiation at the facility in the past.
In a message to employees posted on its website, Sellafield's operators said all daytime personnel were asked to stay home unless specifically requested to report for duty but that laundry, canteen, utilities and transport staff should work as normal.
Nuclear reprocessing involves separating uranium and plutonium from nuclear waste for reuse as fuel, and treating the waste for storage. Reprocessing has taken place at Sellafield for more than 50 years.
The Sellafield complex has long been targeted by anti-nuclear campaigners who say there is a high danger of a serious nuclear accident and that the site is a prime target for terrorists. They have pointed to a number of leaks and other incidents there over the years.
It was the subject of a long-running legal dispute between Britain and Ireland, which feared that radioactive waste from Sellafield could be polluting the Irish Sea.
The government has announced that it wants to build a new nuclear reactor at Sellafield by 2025.