Dipesh Shah: Don't tell the radioactive rabbits, but nuclear power hasn't all gone to waste

Despite the scare stories, the new chief of the UK Atomic Energy Authority is not contaminated by gloom
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The Independent Online

Dipesh Shah is very diplomatic. He has to be. The new chief executive of the UK Atomic Energy Authority is responsible for clearing up the most radioactively contaminated sites in the UK.

Dipesh Shah is very diplomatic. He has to be. The new chief executive of the UK Atomic Energy Authority is responsible for clearing up the most radioactively contaminated sites in the UK.

When it comes to nuclear safety, mass hysteria is never far away. One recent scare story involved rabbits burrowing into nuclear waste pits in Dounreay, Scotland. The local press nicknamed them "atomic bunnies". Shah repeats, probably for the thousandth time, that the public is in no danger and that three-headed rabbits which glow green in the dark are not roaming the Scottish Highlands.

No issue is too loaded to overcome his tactfulness, even about Shell, where he started his career, which is now embroiled in allegations of fraud. "There are some very capable people there," he insists. Asked if that means he has offered the oil giant's sacked chairman, Sir Philip Watts, a job at the UKAEA, he just laughs. Shell could do with such a safe pair of hands.

Shah isn't a follower of the party line either. He is a big fan of renewable energy, which he does not find odd at all given his current job. He set up the first renewable-energy company for his previous employer, BP, which he says was valued at $1bn (£550m). He is also a strong advocate of the futuristic technology nuclear fussion, being pioneered by the UKAEA to harness the power of the sun. But he almost nostalgically recalls the days more than a century ago when biomass - burning compost to you and me - powered the country's homes and factories.

Perhaps this rounded perspective has something to do with his upbringing. Born in India, he was raised in Uganda before the dictator Idi Amin forced him to flee to the UK in the 1970s.

Whether or not it's his background that stops him putting the blinkers on, he is always reluctant to point the finger of blame. For example, Shah could be described as the chief dustman for nuclear waste in the UK. But just as dustmen don't tend to complain about dropped litter so Shah does not have a bad word to say about the people who bequeathed him a legacy of nuclear waste, disused reactors and thousands of acres of contaminated land. "I do not criticise my predecessors. Hindsight is a wonderful gift."

Compared to today, he points out, the technology was rudimentary. "Fifty years from now, some things we take as a given we would do differently. In the way these [reactors] were designed, thought was given to how to make them safe. But it is not necessarily how we would do it now. It's hard to imagine that people were working in the same environment."

The UKAEA's main task is to clear up Dounreay's 135-acre site, opened in 1955 as the centre for the UK's fast-breeder reactor programme to develop a more efficient way of generating electricity using plutonium. The government decided to phase out the programme in 1994, and the UKAEA reckons it will cost £4bn and take 43 years to dismantle and decontaminate the test reactors and plants. The UKAEA also has responsibility for five other sites across the UK.

Decommissioning nuclear reactors is not an easy job, Shah admits. A lot has been learnt on the job. Take the famous "Golf Ball" reactor at Windscale (next to the Sellafield site in Cumbria), which was built after the Second World War when the UK was racing to become an atomic power like the US and needed plutonium for its weapons programme. Two huge concrete piles were built on the site of an old ammunition factory in Windscale in just four years.

But in 1957, a fire broke out, melting the fuel inside the reactor core and igniting the uranium, releasing contaminated particles into the air. Sales of milk produced within 200- miles of the site were banned and a "fall-out" cloud was carried south-eastwards towards cities such as Manchester. Even today, the centre of the crippled reactor contains molten uranium and gives off a gentle heat.

"There has been huge concern over the state of the reactor since the fire in 1957," admits Shah. Inspectors now use remote cameras to examine the inside of the reactor. "We are only able to challenge some of these issues because in the last six years we have learnt so much about decommissioning. This will apply to all other sites in the UK."

A more pressing issue is what to do with all the nuclear waste and debris recovered from decommissioned sites. This will become more urgent as British Nuclear Fuels' Magnox power stations and the British Energy reactor fleet are taken out of service over the next 15 years. Most of the waste is stored on-site in temporary silos, but the Labour Government has procrastinated since it came to power over whether to build a permanent underground repository to store all the waste. Under pressure due to security concerns about having nuclear waste stored in several sites in the UK, the Government looked at the issue again in 2002. But rather than make a decision, it opted to hold a further round of consultation, which will culminate in a report in 2006.

True to his diplomatic nature, Shah refuses to criticise the Government for dragging its feet. "It requires a fair amount of thinking and public consultation. The economics of this suggests we do not hold this everywhere. It makes it easier from a security standpoint if it's concentrated in a few sites. But it's not stored all over the place in vast quantities at the moment anyway."

The UK nuclear industry is not in good shape. In 2002, the Government had to rescue nuclear generator British Energy from bankruptcy, and this was a significant factor when it shelved plans to build new nuclear reactors in its energy White Paper a year later. Plans to part privatise British Nuclear Fuels were also abandoned last year.

But the industry received backing from an unlikely source last week when a leading environmentalist, James Lovelock, said a massive expansion of nuclear power - which does not emit carbon dioxide - was the only way to stop global warming.

Shah, with his vision for new nuclear technology, agrees. "The debate about nuclear is not over; the option [for new UK reactors] is open. The industry does have a future. Only part of it is dealing with the legacy of the past."

BIOGRAPHY

Age: 51.

Born: India, raised in Uganda.

Education: degree in economics at Warwick University, MSc at London University. Attended Harvard Business School.

Career (1974-76): market researcher at Shell-Mex.

1976-97: moved to BP Oil, becoming its chief economist a year later. He went on to be commercial director of natural resources for BP New Zealand, led a team within BP's Mergers and Acquisitions Group, and established the Business Development Division of BP Exploration (Europe). In 1991, he became managing director and chief executive of of BP Solar International.

1997: became chief executive for the Forties Pipeline System, and general manager of BP's Grangemouth petrochemicals complex.

2000-02: vice-president for global acquisitions and divestments at BP.

Directorships: non-executive director of the Babcock services group, power company Viridian, and Naps Systems, the solar electricity firm. Chairman of IT Power, a renewable energy consultancy.

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