Renew On Line (UK) 50

Extracts from NATTA's journal
, issue 150 July-Aug 2004

   Welcome   Archives   Bulletin         


1.  Mind the  Funding Gap

2.  1 GW of Wind - RSPB fears

3.  Marine Renewables

4. Still no to Tidal Barrage/Lagoon

5. Biofuels Push

6. 2000 solar  roofs

7. Transmission Debate

8. Mine Methane shafted

9. Lords on Climate Change

10. RO price rises

11. New Renewable projects around the UK

12. Wind power costs

13. Scotland invests  to save energy

14. SEPN charts progress …but SDC wants

15 Renewables around the World

16. EU new : wind at 30GW

17. Nuclear News: Bush bans reprocessing

17. Nuclear News


Bush bans reprocessing

In a surprising move earlier this year President Bush came out against the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel. He argued that “Enrichment and reprocessing are not necessary for nations seeking to harness nuclear energy for peaceful purposes”, clearly linking this policy to his ‘war on terror’. He says “The nations of the world must do all we can to secure and eliminate nuclear [and chemical and biological] and radiological materials”.  However Bush prefaced his new policy with the qualifier. “The world’s leading nuclear exporters should ensure that states have reliable access at reasonable cost to fuel for civilian reactors, so long as those states renounce enrichment and reprocessing”, so there will still be trade in these materials- and the potential for proliferation of weapons making capacity.

The US backed off reprocessing, and the Fast Breeder Reactor, many years ago, but there has been pressure to reconsider given the Bush decision to relook at the nuclear option. Separating out the plutonium from spent fuel is sometimes seen as one way to reduce the amount of high level (very  radioactive) waste that needs to be stored- even though of course reprocessing does create a lot of extra low and intermediate level waste which  also has to be stored. But evidently worries about the risks having lots of plutonium in circulation have led Bush to argue that the 40 members of the nuclear suppliers group should refuse to sell enrichment and reprocessing equipment and technology to other states without an established nuclear power programme.

The UK and France are the only countries with major reprocessing operations. The UK’s reprocessing operation at Sellafield produces plutonium that is used to make Mixed Oxide Fuel for sale around the world- although it has proven to be hard to find markets as it is expensive and there is plenty of cheap uranium available.  BNFL has indicated that it may abandon reprocessing by 2010.  Certainly British Energy, the UK’s main nuclear plant operator, is not keen on paying the extra cost of reprocessing its spent fuel- it would prefer the cheaper option of dry storage of spent fuel rods, which is the approach adopted by most other countries. Whatever happens with regard to reprocessing in the UK, we will be faced with a legacy of  high, low and intermediate waste- much of the later two types having been created by reprocessing.

In addition, decomissioning old nuclear facilities will create more.  Currently, the government is setting up a Nuclear Decommisioning Authority to deal with this problem- it will in effect take over much of BNFL’s responsibilities in this area, although in practice it seems that a revamped BNFL will actually do the work.  It is interesting in this context that a government minister, Lord Davies of Oldham, told the Lords during passage of the Energy Bill through parliament that

“We consider a great deal of the activity of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, particularly at Thorp and Sellafield Mox Plant, to be loss-making”. 

British Energy (BE), which was privatised in 1996, is also now struggling to survive despite government support, so things do not look good for the UK nuclear industry, and recriminations are now beginning to emerge. During hearings following on from a National Audit Office review which had concluded that BE had at least initially only been monitored with a ‘light touch’,  members of the influential House of Commons Public Accounts Committee denounced BE for “deceiving” and “misleading” shareholders. They also accused DTI officials of “incredible incompetence” over their handling of BE’s collapse.  And to round things off, Sir Robin Young, permanent secretary at the DTI, had conceded that “British Energy, ‘in the light of experience’ should not have privatised” (FT 12/2/04).  Brian Wilson, until recently Labours Energy Minister,  seemed to agree in an Observer article (Feb15), laying much of the blame for the mess on the Conservatives.  But even they have, it seems, changed policy. Tory environment spokesman Caroline Spelman commented during the Environment debate (see Reviews)

‘until an adequate environmental solution is found to the problems of waste from nuclear energy, nuclear power is not an option that can enthusiastically be embraced.  So far, such a solution has not been found.’ 

Phasing out BNFL

Work is underway to decommission the Windscale Pile No. 1- the plant that suffered a fire in 1957.  In response to a Parliamentary Question in Dec, Stephen Timms noted that ‘The Pile One reactor is considered by international experts to be one of the most challenging decommissioning  tasks in the nuclear  industry’.

Timms reported that Phase One decommissioning   involved clearing up and sealing the air and water ducts  and was completed in 1999, at a cost of £14m.  Phase Two involves removal of hazardous materials and treating and packaging the resultant wastes, and to date the costs had been approximately £30 m.  He added that one of the key challenges was ‘limited knowledge of the extent of damage to the fire-affected core’.   We wish the clean-up crews well.

However, the fate of the rest of Sellafield is still far from clear.  THORP, the nuclear fuel reprocessing plant at Sellafield, and the Sellafield MOX plutonium fuel plant were, rather oddly, both excluded from consideration in the governments recent strategy review of BNFL. The ostensible reason given by the Energy Minister, Stephen Timms, was that they would both pass to the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority when it is established in 2005, so that it ‘was not appropriate for them to be considered as part of the review’.  In a letter to the Guardian, (17/12/03), Dr David Lowry  said that this was ‘akin to conducting a review of Transport for London, but excluding consideration of buses and underground trains’.

Taking in Waste

The UK does not allow the import of radioactive waste, but we do take in spent fuel for reprocessing-and that creates wastes as well as plutonium. Under the  terms of some of the reprocessing contracts, if countries will accept the plutonium back in the form of MOX, then we will deal with the extra  wastes.  It’s  called  ‘intermediate level waste substitution’.  Asked about the scale of this Energy Minister Stephen Timms commented:

The NAC International report estimates that the volume of overseas intermediate level radioactive waste (ILW) retained in the UK as a result of ILW substitution would be about 1.4% of the UK’s  total ILW. This amounts to approximately 3,00m 3 . This would be partially offset by a reduction in high level waste that would otherwise be retained in the UK of about 50m 3 .’

This idea was not well received by everyone.  Speaking during the House of Commons debate on the environment in Feb (see Reviews), Lib Dem MP Norman Baker criticised the latest Consultation paper on proposals for intermediate level radioactive waste substitution. 

The thrust of that supposedly independent paper is that we should not necessarily return to the countries whence it came all the waste generated from reprocessing.  Why? Presumably it is because that suggestion would enable prices to be cut and business in that doubtful area to be propped up.  The fact is that we have more than 75,000 cu m of intermediate-level waste lying around in this country, with no clear idea or strategy on how to deal with it. Nirex has no solution. Its last suggestion was pulled and it has not come back with another proposal since, but it now  seems to want more of the stuff. The projections already suggest that we will have 107,000 cu m of intermediate-level waste by 2010, and 143,000 cu m by 2030. It seems that we want more waste from other countries to add to that stockpile. However, the author of that report- NAC International- makes some of its money by carrying out work for BNFL. A parliamentary answer that I received yesterday confirmed both that that financial arrangement exists and that the DTI was aware of it before it commissioned NAC to write the report. That is simply not acceptable. That paper is discredited and the DTI should now withdraw it.’

Lovelock – ‘go nuclear’

Renewables can’t hack it,  so, to deal with climate change, we have to have nuclear power, says James Lovelock (Independent 24th May ): it is ‘the safest of all energy sources’. Friends of the Earth replied,‘Climate change and radioactive waste both pose deadly long-term threats, and we have a moral duty to minimise the effects of both, not to choose  between them.’

NATTA/Renew Subscription Details

Renew is the bi-monthly 30 plus page newsletter of NATTA, the Network for Alternative Technology and Technology Assessment. NATTA members gets Renew free. NATTA membership cost £18 pa (waged) £12pa (unwaged), £6 pa airmail supplement (Please make cheques payable to 'The Open University', NOT to 'NATTA')

Details from NATTA , c/o EERU,
The Open University,
Milton Keynes, MK7 6AA
Tel: 01908 65 4638 (24 hrs)

The full 32 (plus) page journal can be obtained on subscription
The extracts here only represent about 25% of it.

This material can be freely used as long as it is not for commercial purposes and full credit is given to its source.

The views expressed should not be taken to necessarily reflect the views of all NATTA members, EERU or the Open University.