June 2003

Sellafield faces an uncertain future beyond the clean-up

Times Online, 31 May 2003
By Angela Jameson

[Posted 03/06/2003]

The water is a piercing blue-green and under any other circumstances would be inviting. But this is Sellafield, in Cumbria, and the mixture of wire ropes, sludge, metal shavings, pumps, scaffolding, rubber gloves and, prosaically, a battered old mop bucket at the bottom of the pool are deadly.

Visitors are dressed head to toe in a bright orange boiler suit, wear a face mask and a hard hat and have an electronic personal dosometer clipped to them. As you peer into the pool, the dosometer's steady click increases distinctly. Fourteen microsieverts and counting.

Nothing brings home the extent of the clean-up operation needed at Sellafield like staring deep into the tanks of the B30 Magnox reprocessing plant. And B30 is only the beginning - there are about 15 buildings like this one, the subject of a decommissioning programme that began in the 1980s and will probably take another 30 years.

Earlier this month the 4 sq km Sellafield waste management, reprocessing and fuel recycling site was finally given a clean bill of health by the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate, three and a half years after the company admitted to serious safety breaches. Yet having overcome this hurdle, Sellafield, despite its 56-year history has an uncertain future.

It is not - as the Government of the Irish Republic and a vocal celebrity-led campaign would hope - that Sellafield might be shut down. (A realist can only hope that Sellafield will never close - no responsible government would turn its back on this mess.) But British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL), the state-owned company that owns and operates Sellafield, is under threats like no other it has ever faced.

Next month, Patricia Hewitt, the Trade and Industry Secretary, will publish the Bill that could finish off BNFL for good or, at best, transform the company into its own undertaker, charged with spending its remaining years cleaning up the nuclear legacy.

The Secretary of State will tell Parliament that the Government is creating a body called the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA). And BNFL will hand over Sellafield and its ageing Magnox nuclear reactors to the new body. BNFL will continue to run the site, but the terms will be set under new commercial contracts and will, in time, be re-tendered. BNFL will have to compete with a host of private sector companies keen to take a slice of the estimated £350 billion worldwide market for cleaning up nuclear sites.

But that is not the only threat that BNFL, which employs 23,000 people around the world, faces. Its two biggest customers, British Energy of the UK and Tepco of Japan, have faced crises in the past year and may yet collapse. British Energy has been forced to rely on state loans to continue operating and may be forced into administration, if Europe blocks plans for state aid. Tepco was engulfed in a safety scandal after it emerged that staff had altered records for a decade.

Moreover, BNFL is still struggling to restore its credibility after the MOX scandal of four years ago, when the company admitted to serious safety breaches including the falsification of documents relating to the mixed plutonium/uranium oxide (MOX) fuel that it intended to sell to customers from Japan to France.

Brian Watson, the goodhumoured Geordie who is director of the site at Sellafield, is remarkably optimistic in the circumstances. The "horrendous" mistakes of the past have been learnt from and the company has taken on 1,400 more workers over the past three years to replace the "layer of experience" that had been lost and contributed to the Mox falsification scandal.

Watson says: "We have had an excellent track record over the past two years and have hit almost all our targets. But we have to do another year to demonstrate that we are the best people to carry on this responsibility."

The cost of cleaning up Sellafield has been estimated by the Government at £27 billion. Yet, for almost the first time since the 1940s there is a fear among the 10,000 Sellafield workers that their jobs for life, and their children's jobs, are under threat. Watson has the difficult task of trying to calm their fears, but also warn against complacency.

"We spend about £1 billion a year on remediation. That says to me there is a possibly another 27 years of work here at Sellafield. How many businesses can look that far out with any degree of certainty?" he asks. But there's the rub. BNFL can not look that far out now.

Watson hopes that when the contracts eventually come up for tender they will last for five years, with a chance of a five-year extension. However, no one knows if that will be the case and the likes of Taylor Woodrow, Amec, Robert McAlpine and Bechtel are all keen to take a slice of the remediation work.

Just because BNFL is the incumbent operator does not mean that it will win the contract. On the other hand, losing it is unthinkable. "I say to the workers, 'Don't just think that if we lose this it will be only me and some of my friends that will go. There will be major changes'," says Watson.

Walking around the dilapidated buildings that make up the old Magnox reprocessing plants, the reasons why it could feasibly take 27 years to clean up Sellafield become clear. Almost every little operation requires a proprietary engineering solution and the whole time there is the safety of the workers to think of. Dave Forsyth is my guide around the plant.

Like most of the BNFL employees I meet, he has been working for the company since he graduated, at least 11 years ago, with an engineering degree. Before we begin our tour we are informed of the rules that we must follow, something that happens every time you visit the site and are given a quick test to check we have understood.

Forsyth takes us around a part of the Magnox plant that was built in 1959. The remnants of a former industrial age are clear to see: electric switches that would look more at home on the Titanic than in a nuclear plant.

Just to begin work on decommissioning B30, new electronics, switches, ventilation and radiometrics must be installed. Yet there are few people around, making one wonder where all Sellafield's 10,000 workers are. I saw only about 30 of the 350 who are supposed to be working on this area. The explanation is that each worker can be exposed to only 40 microsieverts of radiation a day. After 45 minutes, 19 had registered on my counter. On this basis it is obvious why it takes years to complete a relatively simple task.

A new crane is required to lift flasks out of the main pool at B30. The runners are rusted away in a scene that would not be untypical of a northern shipyard. In any other plant it would be relatively straightforward to put in some scaffolding and get the new runners and crane installed. At Sellafield, the prospect of working directly over a radioactive soup prevents any hasty activity and is taxing some of the most experienced engineers in the land. It's hardly surprising that it has taken ten years to clear half the poisonous pond of its cargo.

But Sellafield is more than just a site to be cleaned up. It is a business with a turnover of £600 million a year and is one of two key players in the international spent fuel management and recycling market.

Thorp, the thermal oxide reprocessing plant, which was built in 1988, reprocesses waste mostly from British Energy's reactors but also has customers from around the world.

Thorp has reprocessed just over 5,000 tonnes of spent fuel in its history and has 2,000 more tonnes to work through, which will keep the plant in operation until 2006-07. The company also has contracts for business beyond that date.

But it is the MOX plant which could hold the key to BNFL and Sellafield's survival as more than a working morgue for British nuclear expertise. When customers send their spent fuel to Sellafield to be reprocessed it contains about 1 per cent plutonium, which has to be returned to them. It could go back as a powder but it is less dangerous and more "environmentally friendly" to recycle it into a new fuel by adding uranium.

The MOX plant, which cost £473 million to build, will do just this and was licensed to begin processing plutonium in December 2001. Besides reprocessing spent fuel, the MOX plant can also be used to deal with the legacy of the Cold War. The US and Russia have each committed themselves to disposing of 34 tonnes of ex-weapons plutonium. If MOX works, BNFL could make good money. But the chances of the company becoming attractive enough to be part-privatised through a Public Private Partnership are still slim. BNFL is on a threshold, one that is underlined by the decision of Norman Askew, the current chief executive, to resign this summer. His replacement will be announced in the next month, shortly after the publication of the NDA Bill, which will dictate so much of the new chief executive's task.

When the NDA takes over Sellafield's assets, it may well decide that it is too much trouble to run MOX. After all, it is considered a white elephant by many and has further infuriated BNFL's Irish neighbours. Turning its back on the rest of Sellafield, however, is not an option. "No one can walk away from Sellafield," Watson says. "BNFL's overwhelming priority in the short, medium and long term is to clean up the site to the most benign state possible."

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