Fuel for the fiery waste debate: Britain will be a dump for radioactive material, if BNF's new plant opens, says Andrew Blowers

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WITHIN the next few weeks the Government must decide whether to allow British Nuclear Fuels to open its new Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant (Thorp) at Sellafield in Cumbria. It is the most momentous environmental decision ministers have faced this decade.

The debate about BNF's pounds 2.8bn plant has focused mainly on the radioactive and other toxic emissions from Thorp's operations if it opens, and the economic costs in lost foreign contracts and jobs if the project is abandoned.

But, if Thorp goes ahead, the likelihood is that Britain will become a dumping ground for large quantities of foreign radioactive waste. This issue has received less attention because a crucial aspect of the reprocessing business has been almost completely ignored.

When BNF reprocesses nuclear fuel from foreign customers, it has an option to return all waste generated during its operations to the country of origin. But, if Thorp opens, it will not need to return the voluminous intermediate- and low-level waste arising from a contract. Instead, it will be able to return a substitute of a much smaller volume of high-level waste, which the company calculates to be equivalent in radioactivity.

If this substitution procedure goes ahead, Britain will become a dustbin for significant volumes of foreign waste. The economic survival of Thorp may well be bought at the cost of serious environmental consequences for present and future generations.

The Government's advisory body, the Radioactive Waste Management Advisory Committee, submitted its observations to the Secretary of State for the Environment on the possible consequences of substitution as far back as last October. Although the Department of the Environment acknowledged in a parliamentary reply on 27 January that the matter would be taken into account in deciding the future of Thorp, there has since been silence. If substitution takes place, under the terms of contracts with foreign customers, the UK will be irrevocably committed to managing foreign waste in perpetuity. This prospect alone should be a major reason for the Government to abandon the project.

The justification for Thorp rests heavily on its role in nuclear waste management and on its claimed benefits to the national and local economy. Reprocessing reduces the volume of high-level waste (by about half). But the volume of intermediate- and low-level waste is vastly increased during reprocessing. John Large, a consultant nuclear engineer, estimates an increase of 189 times the volume of the original fuel assembly if total decommissioning waste is included. He suggests that encapsulating the fuel, rather than reprocessing it, increases the volume by only seven times and direct storage by a factor of only three.

Thorp's future rests primarily on its ability to attract foreign customers. Political developments are beginning to make it look vulnerable. Public opposition has led to reprocessing being seriously questioned in Germany, a prime customer for Thorp. It is conceivable that the Germans could back out of existing contracts. More importantly, future custom from this source is looking unlikely.

In Japan, too, there is considerable opposition to plans for future reprocessing and the risks of long-distance transfer of plutonium and radioactive waste have been exposed by campaigners.

But substitution is the issue that may cause a critical escalation of public concern.

BNF has had the option since 1976 to return all the residual radioactive waste arising from foreign contracts. But so far, no waste has been shipped back to the country of origin. The UK, then, is already a temporary centre for managing foreign nuclear waste.

It seems unlikely that bulky low-level waste will ever be returned to its country of origin; instead, it will be disposed of at the Drigg repository near Sellafield. So the UK has tacitly become a permanent repository for foreign low-level waste.

Substitution will take this process much further. It will make Britain the permanent resting place for the much more dangerous plutonium-contaminated intermediate-level waste from other countries. Under substitution, the high-level waste arising from reprocessing will be returned to its country of origin, but the voluminous intermediate- and low-level waste will not. High-level waste from other sources, such as domestic reprocessing or from pre-1976 foreign contracts, will be returned instead. So - and this is the crucial point - the UK will have to dispose of the remaining waste in a deep repository.

This contradicts the so-called 'proximity principle' accepted by the Government and the EC, which holds that developed countries should, as far as possible, be self-sufficient in the management of all their waste. Substitution will breach that principle and make Sellafield the European dumping ground for radioactive waste. As recognition of this fact grows, local opposition to plans by UK Nirex, the nuclear industry's waste-disposal company, to excavate a waste repository near Sellafield may intensify.

From BNF's point of view, substitution has commercial advantages: much smaller volumes of waste will have to be shipped back (although more space will have to be found for the storage and disposal of foreign waste here). Facilities for the management and storage of high-level waste are being developed in the customer countries. BNF also argues that the lower volume of waste being transported will reduce the risks involved. But the proposal raises political concerns. One is that substitution would be difficult to implement.

It remains to be seen whether high-level waste can, in practice, be returned. The first shipment back to Japan of high-level waste is not due until 1996 and shipments to Germany, Italy and Switzerland are scheduled for a later date. Already opposition has dogged the shipment of plutonium and could be mobilised against waste shipments in the UK, the destination country and at points along the route.

Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Pollution is sifting through 55,000 objections to draft authorisations for the disposal of gaseous and liquid waste from Thorp. The substitution issue brings the problem of solid-waste management to centre stage.

The Nirex repository may or may not be granted planning permission and it will certainly not be open until around 2010 at the earliest. It is also unlikely that BNF's foreign customers will have permanent repositories for high-level waste ready to receive back their quotas, including substituted amounts. Thorp would spawn an international trade in dangerous materials for which there are no agreed long- term management plans.

Andrew Blowers is Professor of Social Science at the Open University and a member of the Government's Radioactive Waste Management Advisory Committee. The views expressed here are those of the author alone.

(Photograph omitted)