a Waste: The game may finally be up for nuclear reprocessing
New Scientist, Editorial, 26 February 2000
WOULD be nice to think that Britain's biggest nuclear complex, at Sellafield
in Cumbria, is in safe hands. Surely one of the world's largest stockpiles
of plutonium and accumulations of radioactive debris is managed by an
organisation that is alert to any danger?
scathing reports published last week by the British government's Health
and Safety Executive (HSE) slammed the "poor safety culture" and "systematic
management failure" at Sellafield. The reports raise serious questions
about the competence of the site's operator, British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL),
and once again highlight the absurdity of the reprocessing business.
question marks over Sellafield safety standards are depressingly familiar.
Since it took over -and promptly renamed- the old Windscale site in
1971, BNFL has hardly excelled in its duties. In 1981, after a series
of radioactive leaks, the HSE reported that safety standards at the
plant "had deteriorated to an unsatisfactory level". Then, in 1986,
there were four leaks and a fire in just three months. That time, the
executive highlighted an "insufficiently thorough" attitude to safety.
Then, BNFL promised to make amends. It promised again this week.
strong safety culture is not an optional extra when it comes to nuclear
fuel. We know its absence contributed to the accidents at Three Mile
Island (1979), Chernobyl (1986), and Tokaimura (1999). A major accident
at such a huge plant as Sellafield, does not bear thinking about.
BNFL is clearly responsible, it should not take all the blame. The HSE
has repeatedly failed to whip the company into line. Worse, BNFL's sole
shareholder, the British government, has shielded Sellafield from its
main activity at Sellafield is reprocessing spent fuel from reactors.
BNFL separates the plutonium and combines it with uranium to make mixed
oxide (MOX) reactor fuel. This is a business whose rationale has long
since evaporated (see p 18). It continues only because no government
has been brave enough to call a halt. In Britain, every time criticism
mounts the industry argues that so much has already been invested that
it would be wasteful not to continue -wasting more money, that is. William
Walker, a nuclear analyst at St Andrews University in Scotland, calls
it "nuclear entrapment".
present government is facing just such a dilemma. BNFL has built a £300
million plant at Sellafield to make MOX fuel, and is waiting for the
government to approve it. The plant is up and partly commissioned, so
why not actually use it? The answer is because nobody really wants the
decades ago, plutonium was expected to be a cheap reactor fuel. BNFL
browbeat its main customers, Japan and Germany, into agreeing to have
their fuel reprocessed and the plutonium extracted. Since then, however,
plutonium has become the fuel nobody wants: a dangerous weapon rather
than a civil resource. In this new climate, you'd think BNFL would simply
leave the plutonium locked up in spent fuel rods. But no, it carries
on reprocessing, making more plutonium, which it then has to dispose
answer is to make MOX fuel, which BNFL freely admits is dearer than
ordinary uranium fuel. But because of suspect quality standards, Japan
says it doesn't want any more MOX from Sellafield. Nuclear industry
executives in Germany say privately that they don't want it either.
What better time to stop the whole cycle?
should offer to store German and Japanese spent fuel rods -it even owns
the technology to build the stores. Charging for this service would
probably more than cover the cost of shutting down its main reprocessing
line, THORP. Closing down the plutonium business at Sellafield would
not endanger nuclear power. Instead, it could cut electricity charges
by removing the cost of reprocessing.
the problem of what to do with Sellafield's 66-tonne plutonium stockpile
would remain. There are plenty of ideas for disposing of the plutonium,
it's just that Britain has never seriously considered them.
result of the latest crisis at Sellafield is that the British government
has had to delay plans to sell off part of BNFL. This is ironic. The
private sector could be just the cure that BNFL needs. Without government
protection, the company would probably attract the full force of the
regulator's wrath, forcing it to improve its safety culture at last.
still, the rigour of working in the commercial sector might well expose
reprocessing for what it is: a dangerous anachronism.