Ex nuclear boss slams sell-off

A FORMER director of British Nuclear Fuels has launched a scathing attack on Government plans to sell off the industry, arguing that British Energy is unready and unfit for privatisation.

Harold Bolter, who resigned from BNFL in 1994, also argues that Sellafield's pounds 2.5bn new reprocessing plant, Thorp, was designed for a nuclear age that never materialised and now runs the risk of becoming Britain's most expensive white elephant.

The attack is unprecedented from someone who worked in the nuclear industry for 16 years. Mr Bolter, 58, resigned in 1994 amid allegations that he used company contractors to decorate his home but was later cleared of any wrongdoing.

In a new book to be published shortly, Inside Sellafield, he says that Britain's nuclear fuel apparatus was built on the assumption that uranium, the raw fuel, would remain rare. Thorp was designed to recycle spent uranium fuel and to provide plutonium to fuel the proposed fast-breeder reactors.

Now, Mr Bolter says, the Government has abandoned fast-breeder reactors and uranium is abundant and cheap - removing Thorp's raison d'etre. "If we had known then what we know now," he writes, "Thorp would never have been built."

At present, British Energy - the combination of Nuclear Electric's and Scottish Nuclear's eight most modern plants - has agreed to send all its spent fuel to be reprocessed at Thorp until 2003. But after that, it could well put the spent fuel into long-term storage, now a much cheaper move.

Mr Bolter argues that long-term storage carries unquantifiable risks and that, by leaving this option open, British Energy is leaving its investors with a potential time bomb. "Privatisation cannot go ahead with a question mark hanging over 5,000 tonnes of radioactive fuel," he said. "British Energy has not found anyone in West Cumbria or anywhere else willing to have unprocessed fuel dumped beneath them. So where will it go? These are questions that investors will want answered - and before 2003."

When British Energy is privatised this summer, Mr Bolter argues, its eight stations will be sold for the price it took to build one. He maintains this reflects the Government's lack of faith in the company.

"Anyone picking up an 'eight for the price of one' offer in a car boot sale would look for the hidden catch," he said. "I am urging potential British Energy investors to do exactly that.

"The Government is saying: 'Here are some reactors, working pretty well. We think we've got a grip on the risks, but we're not quite sure, so we're selling them very very cheaply."

BNFL, which is to remain under state control, has denied that Thorp could face closure. "We have signed up contracts for the next 15 years, and will make pounds 500m profit in the first 10," said a spokesman. "Most of our business comes from overseas anyway, so if British Energy does decide to store its fuel itself, we can survive without it."

Mr Bolter still holds, however, that reprocessing is the safest long- term option. "Yes, you can always dump it in a pond. But after a while, the nasties will get into the water, costing millions to clean up. The only secure option is for British Energy to commit all its spent fuel for reprocessing and for the Government to underwrite it. Unless that happens I, for one, will not be buying any of its shares."

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