A year ago an unlikely saviour for Sellafield came to Whitehall - only to be sent away with a radioactive flea in his ear.
JÃ¼rgen Trittin, a virulently anti-nuclear Green, from the fundamentalist wing of his party, had just become Germany's environment minister. Not long before, he had been out canvassing by bicycle in shorts, sneakers and a T-shirt sporting the smiley-face symbol of the campaign against nuclear power.
Now he was striding into British ministries, neatly dressed in a three-piece suit, representing Sellafield's second biggest overseas customer. Ministers feared he was coming to pull the plug on the Cumbrian plant. Instead he offered a deal that would have secured its long-term future, and taken much of the sting out of the current crisis, which - as predicted in last week's Independent on Sunday - has forced the Government to postpone plans partly to privatise its owner, British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL).
Sellafield should stop reprocessing his country's used nuclear fuel, he suggested. Instead he would pay the plant to prepare it for storage. At a stroke, the plant was offered a way of getting out of a dangerous technology that is running out of customers and of taking the lead in a safer, more profitable and secure one.
Britain's environment ministers, pleasantly surprised by the Green's moderation, listened attentively. But BNFL and the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) were outraged.
If Trittin dared to try to stop Sellafield reprocessing the fuel, they said, they would send it back to Germany, 35 train-loads of it. This was an effective threat. Just two years before, the minister's own Green colleagues had protested so vigorously against a relatively small trip by just one train-load of nuclear materials that Germany had had to institute its greatest mobilisation of troops since the Second World War.
"That concentrated his mind somewhat," crowed Stephen Byers, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, as Trittin went home empty-handed. But now, as Sellafield's customers desert it, foreign governments call for its closure, and the plant faces the prospect of being compelled to abandon reprocessing, it is Byers's and his officials' minds that are being forcibly focused.
Actually, that's not true. DTI officials are panicking, rather than concentrating. "They make headless chickens look like models of organisation," said a mandarin from another department intimately involved with the issue last week.
It was left to Hugh Collum, BNFL's new chairman, grudgingly to indicate that it might now be time to consider alternatives to reprocessing. While still insisting to MPs that "we have no plans to change our strategy", he conceded that the company might have "to look at the unthinkable". Unthinkable? It is a revealing word, for it exposes the extent of the blinkered, ideological devotion to a dying technology that has brought BNFL to its knees.
Reprocessing recovers plutonium and uranium from used reactor fuel. Decades ago, when the practice started, these were expected to become scarce as nuclear power rapidly expanded, meaning that they would need to be recycled for use in a new generation of "fast breeder" reactors. But the predicted growth never occurred, the fast breeders were abandoned and huge stocks of the materials built up.
Sellafield now has in excess of 60 tons of plutonium - enough for more than 6,000 bombs - which nobody wants, and even more useless uranium. You would think that once BNFL had got into this hole, it would stop digging, particularly as reprocessing pollutes the sea and air with radioactivity, and the process is accident-prone.
America saw the writing on the wall more than 20 years ago and abandoned the process. Three quarters of the world's used fuel remains unreprocessed, and there is no rush to build plants to treat it - a sure sign that there is no real market for the technology. But BNFL has blundered heedlessly on.
No matter that there were no fast breeders to use up the plutonium, the firm reasoned; it could be used to power ordinary reactors instead. So it started making it into a special "mixed-oxide" (MOX) fuel, and - without asking for formal Govern- ment approval - spent £300m of public money on building a plant to mass-produce it.
Even before the present crisis broke, this policy was in deep trouble. MOX is at least two and a half times more expensive than ordinary fuel. The new plant had been able to secure contracts to meet only 6.7 per cent of its capacity, and ministers repeatedly delayed a decision to allow it to start up. Meanwhile Sellafield's other main customers besides Germany were increasingly doubtful about reprocessing, which is far more expensive than merely storing old used fuel.
The crisis - which broke after the Independent revealed that Sellafield had fabricated safety data on MOX fuel - is delivering the coup de grÃ¢ce. All the plant's main overseas customers - Japan, Germany, Switzerland and Sweden - have suspended business with it, while British Energy is to renegotiate its contracts. The Cumbrian complex is left with a simple choice: change or close.
In fact JÃ¼rgen Trittin was not the first to propose a viable alternative future. In the early 1990s, the Department of the Environment secretly put forward a similar one. Dubbed the "win-win option", it also proposed that spent fuel was stored rather than reprocessed, because it benefited everyone. BNFL would make more money, its customers would have to pay less; pollution would be cut; and the dangerous plutonium stockpiles would stop growing.
Michael Howard and John Gummer, successive Environment secretaries of state, were interested. But BNFL and the DTI rejected the proposal as implausible. One of their objections was that storing the fuel would run into stiff opposition from environmentalists, who have long campaigned against Sellafield becoming "the world's nuclear dustbin". But they have changed their minds and now also advocate storage. If this plan were adopted, says Peter Roche, Greenpeace's nuclear campaigner, "we would end up being one of Sellafield's greatest friends instead of its deadliest enemy".
Storing nuclear fuels, probably in buildings cooled by air, may carry some risks but it is far safer than reprocessing because it does not release pollution and is less accident-prone. Politically, this approach would be much less fraught than to persist with reprocessing.
BNFL continues to insist that without reprocessing Sellafield will close. But the reverse is true. Reprocessing is dying, dragging the complex and its workers down with it. The alternative plan offers plenty of work for the indefinite future - and better profits.
Gordon MacKerron, of Sussex University's Science Policy Research Unit and Britain's leading nuclear economist, has calculated that BNFL would earn more money by switching from reprocessing to storage as soon as possible.
There is also a huge amount of work to be done in making Sellafield's backlog of nuclear waste and radioactive debris safe. And all that plutonium needs to be put into a form which could no longer be used to make bombs, or be vulnerable to terrorists: the new MOX plant, MacKerron suggests, could be used to mix it up with nuclear waste again.
Best of all, BNFL could make a fortune clearing up nuclear contamination around the world; the firm estimates there is £300bn worth of this business in the US alone, more in Russia.
Privately, senior managers at the company admit that this constitutes its long-term future. But they are bull-headedly pressing on with reprocessing partly out of inertia and partly to make as much money as possible from it. In doing so they are endangering their chances of getting the other business. Trust in BNFL is collapsing around the world, and the US administration has announced that it is to send an inspection team to Sellafield before letting it have any of its clean-up work.
It has come to a pretty pass when those such as JÃ¼rgen Trittin, who have for years bitterly opposed Sellafield, offer the best chance of saving the plant and its jobs, while its management drives it over the abyss. But, then again, BNFL's self-destructiveness long ago lost its ability to surprise.Reuse content