Comment: The Government must step in now

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Enough is enough. The Government is going to have to face the awkward truth about the Sellafield nuclear plant: that reprocessing has no future. It is dangerous, polluting and uneconomic. That does not mean the entire Cumbria plant has to close, but it does mean, sadly, that many jobs will be lost. This is a depressing outcome for many people in the region, but the imperative of preserving jobs alone cannot come before safety, the environment, and public finances. The taxpayer would be prepared to provide generous support to help the area adjust, but cannot be expected to write an open cheque to keep an industry in business which was only invented to find something to do with the by-products of the nuclear programme.

Enough is enough. The Government is going to have to face the awkward truth about the Sellafield nuclear plant: that reprocessing has no future. It is dangerous, polluting and uneconomic. That does not mean the entire Cumbria plant has to close, but it does mean, sadly, that many jobs will be lost. This is a depressing outcome for many people in the region, but the imperative of preserving jobs alone cannot come before safety, the environment, and public finances. The taxpayer would be prepared to provide generous support to help the area adjust, but cannot be expected to write an open cheque to keep an industry in business which was only invented to find something to do with the by-products of the nuclear programme.

You do not need to understand the science of the reprocessing industry to know that the Mox plant should be closed down. The simple facts are: first, that Sellafield has been leaking pollution since it was built, as Windscale, in the 1950s; second, that it cannot guarantee the degree of safety which society has the right to demand of an industry in which the risks can be catastrophic; and, third, that it will never make money as a commercial venture.

The Independent's revelation of faked safety sheets - in September last year - has triggered a chain reaction which has put the second and third points beyond doubt. It should be clear now that human error and mismanagement simply cannot be designed out of the reprocessing business. This is clear to the Germans and the Japanese, at least, and that ensures there is no commercial margin in the product on which British Nuclear Fuels, Sellafield's owner, has staked its future. This week's news that the privatisation of BNFL has been postponed should have come as no surprise.

Without reprocessing, however, there are still important uses for the expertise of BNFL and some of its staff at Sellafield, even if they are unlikely to earn a commercial return and would therefore probably remain indefinitely in the public sector. There is a huge job to be done, for instance, in cleaning up the nuclear power industry of the former Soviet Union, for which Britain could earn the world's gratitude.

The Government would earn respect, possibly even from the workforce at Sellafield, if it acted decisively. It would help to restore Britain's reputation abroad. But, most importantly, it would mean that this generation bequeathed one problem fewer to the next.

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