Dark future for the fuel Sellafield hopes to reprocess

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The Mox shipment due to arrive at Sellafield today was meant to be a triumphant emblem of what some people imagined in the 1970s would be the cheapest fuel on Earth.

Unfortunately, 30 years later, the prices of all the alternative fuels, including oil, gas and uranium have remained doggedly low, while the real costs of mixed-oxide (Mox) uranium and plutonium reactor fuel has rocketed.

It is possible that there will never be a viable "Mox economy", and that the shipment's three-year amble around the world will be emblematic of this nuclear fuel's failed search for a market.

"BNFL's commercial case is looking pretty weak now," said John Large, an independent nuclear consultant. "These orders [for Mox] were placed about 10 years ago, when people expected that the price of gas and oil, and uranium as well, would all rise. Instead they're all low, and uranium is cheap, which means that Mox fuel is more expensive than raw uranium."

When Mox fuel "burns" inside a reactor, it produces plutonium and uranium, which can then be recycled to remove unwanted elements. But opponents say that the recycling spreads radioactivity, creates a terrorist target and is commercially unviable.

BNFL used to be confident it could justify the first two on the ground that the process made economic sense. Yesterday it said the names of clients for its Mox reprocessing are "commercially confidential" – but increasingly they look nonexistent.

Even the Japanese were believed to be a loss-leader customer – in the hope that their example would encourage others to join – and given a low price when the contract with them was signed 10 years ago. And now BNFL will have to spend millions of pounds simply to make the rods safe to keep at Sellafield.

The problem is that during the past three years half of one form of the plutonium in the rods will have decayed into americium, a highly reactive and very radioactive element needing special handling. The longer the rods go unprocessed, the more americium there will be, and the more urgent the need for some intervention by BNFL to ensure their safety. Otherwise the rods, consisting of about 1,000 small fuel pellets, could begin to crack, while hydrogen produced from the decay will leave voids and make the plutonium inside clump together – another potentially dangerous development.

BNFL will then make new fuel rods from what is usable. In the meantime, another set of rods will have been prepared to ship back to Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco), the customer for BNFL's Mox reprocessing.

That the rods going back are not the same as those arriving does not matter; what is important is their radioactive composition. Since arriving in Japan in September 1999, the rods have been stored underwater at secure facilities.

At first they were awaiting use – but since The Independent revealed that safety data recorded while checking the rods had been faked, the rods have been awaiting a trip back to Sellafield.

The Japanese companies that were to be customers for more fuel shipments, using the £472m Mox plant at Sellafield which went "active" last December, are themselves caught up in a series of scandals about cracked reactors. "Ten years ago if you'd said to the Japanese [power companies] that they'd need to make a safety case to their public for using nuclear, they'd have denied it was necessary," commented Dr Large. "But now the local prefectures are becoming more and more dominant in the argument, while it's become evident that there were cover-ups over the reactors."

He suggsted that with Mox increasingly discredited, the Japanese could be forced simply to drop the contract with BNFL, in much the same way as German power companies are already moving away from reprocessing towards storage.

Likewise, British Energy, another of the biggest customers for BNFL, is facing serious financial difficulties. Dropping reprocessing, and opting instead for cheaper long-term "dry" storage of its reactor waste, could save £300m – about the size of the loan the Government just granted it to stave off insolvency.

"If we were running the country," said Pete Roche, a nuclear campaigner at Greenpeace, "we'd prefer dry storage. The [waste] discharges are much less; in 'wet' storage [under water] there's a danger of spent fuel rods breaking."

All in all, it's a pretty grim outlook for BNFL.

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