A leak containing plutonium five times the “ministerial reportable level” was discovered at Sellafield in February, it has emerged.The incident was so serious it had to be reported to the Government and is now under investigation by the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR).

Sellafield bosses described the volume of liquid as about 500,000 litres

There was a minimal threat to the safety of workers and people outside the site. The material will soon been cleared up.

A report on the incident said it exposed a “number of shortfalls in the design” of the ventilation system.

Sellafield bosses are still being quizzed over the lapse in a bid to stop it happening again, though the ONR said Sellafield’s response to the incident was “inappropriate”.

A spokesman for Sellafield said: “Sellafield Ltd plant management discovered a significant amount of radioactive water leaking as part of a rigorous plant inspection regime back in February, in an usually off limits building at Sellafield.

“The quantity of material detected many times the ministerial reportable level, but did not breach any company safety limit.

“Safety limits are set to minimise radioactive doses to the workforce and none of the workforce received a radioactive dose as a result of the find.

“Access to the area was locked off and further measures were put in place to ensure none of the workforce was affected.

“It was concluded that condensation is likely to have escaped through a valve in the cooling system.

“Safety is our 2nd priority at Sellafield and as soon as the water was discovered, access to the area was restricted in order to protect our workforce once the incident had been costed.

The lapse was one of four at UK nuclear sites over a three-month period cited in a report to ministers.

The others were a leaking pipe at Torness, near Edinburgh, a faulty valve in a cooling system at Hartlepool and a further incident at an as yet unnamed site.

Details of the incidents have been circulated to ministers including Energy Secretary Chris Huhne and Vince Cable, the Business Secretary.

The criteria for reporting nuclear incidents include leakages, breaches of safety limits and events where “safe operation may be significantly affected”.

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