March 2000

What a Waste: The game may finally be up for nuclear reprocessing

New Scientist, Editorial, 26 February 2000

[Posted 02/03/2000]

IT 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?

Dream on.

Three 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.

These 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.

A 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.

While 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 critics.

The 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".

The 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 fuel.

Three 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 of.

BNFL's 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?

BNFL 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.

But 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.

One 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.

Better still, the rigour of working in the commercial sector might well expose reprocessing for what it is: a dangerous anachronism.

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