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Extracts from NATTA's journal
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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
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)
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:
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.
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.’