According to its owners, it will be this country's biggest single earner of Japanese yen over the next decade and will make a profit for the taxpayer of more than pounds 500m. Yet there is a chance it may never operate. The plant could become the greatest technological white elephant of our time, outstripping Concorde and the TSR-2 fighter.
The Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant (Thorp) has been standing idle at Sellafield ever since British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL) completed it a year ago this month. Then, the company was confidently predicting that Thorp would be operating before Christmas and would run for more than 25 years. Now, it complains of government-inspired delays costing it more than pounds 2m a week, and some of its executives privately concede that it might operate for just 10 years.
Rumours from Whitehall suggest some government departments doubt the wisdom of letting the plant operate at all. Its fate has become the subject of 'interdepartmental discussions' chaired by a deputy secretary in the Cabinet Office.
The Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), which superseded the old Department of Energy, remains a fanatical believer. Even in private, off-the-record briefings, the line from the DTI sounds as if it had been written by BNFL's press office. Yet the Treasury has invited Greenpeace in to criticise the economics of Thorp, the Foreign Office worries about international shipments of plutonium and the Department of the Environment wrestles with the problem of allowing more radioactive discharges into the Irish Sea.
Informed observers believe that, despite the doubts of some officials, the plant will start up, if only because ministers have no stomach for the headlines that would greet a decision not to proceed. And BNFL is not without friends in the media: Sir Bernard Ingham, formerly Margaret Thatcher's press spokesman and a paid consultant to BNFL, writes a trenchant column in the Daily Express.
For the Government to admit, so soon after the coal debacle, that it had mismanaged another strand of energy policy would be a political impossibility. Ministers would have to explain why they had woken up to the fact that the plant was redundant only after it had been completed and why they were indifferent to the fate of the 1,400 men and women whose jobs are on the line.
For those workers, the real villains are the environmental lobby groups, particularly Greenpeace, whose protest was supported by an astonishing 36,000 letters. Publicly, the company also blames Greenpeace, but privately it has accepted that protests have been heard by receptive ears within Whitehall.
In fact, the rationale for the plant began to disappear within a year of the Windscale inquiry, which gave Thorp the go-ahead in 1978.
The case for reprocessing had seemed watertight. In response to the 100 per cent increase in oil prices imposed by the Arab countries in 1973, all developed nations turned to nuclear power. Uranium prices promptly sky- rocketed, and attention turned to fast reactors, which use uranium 100 times more efficiently than ordinary 'thermal' reactors. Fast reactors run on plutonium, which Thorp was to provide by reprocessing spent fuel from thermal reactors. In 1976, the UK Atomic Energy Authority predicted that Britain would need more than 30 fast-breeder reactors by the year 2000 or else the lights would go out.
But the case quickly unravelled. Thermal reactors proved too costly to build - and fast reactors would be more complicated and expensive still. In 1979, the year after Thorp was given the green light, the Three Mile Island accident demonstrated that the American nuclear industry, at least, did not know how to operate its existing reactors safely.
Then, in the early Eighties, the Opec cartel collapsed. Oil was suddenly plentiful and prices were low. American utilities began cancelling orders for nuclear power stations and started to off- load their uranium fuel on to the market. As a result, the price of uranium today is lower than the cost of digging it out of the ground.
The British nuclear programme collapsed as well. Although Mrs Thatcher was committed to building one new nuclear power station each year for a decade, only one - Sizewell B in Suffolk - was started and it will not operate until late 1994. Plans for 30 fast reactors were never realised and in 1988 the then Energy Secretary, Cecil Parkinson, announced that even the small prototype fast reactor at Dounreay would cease operating prematurely in 1994. Last year, the Government decided to pull out of the European fast reactor partnership.
It is testimony to the incompetence of successive secretaries of state for energy (and that of their officials) that while the world changed, construction of Thorp continued unaffected. Last summer, however, a cascade of problems rained down on BNFL, raising the political profile and making it impossible to ignore the issues any longer. After lengthy and unexplained delays, the HM Inspectorate of Pollution (HMIP) finally published a draft authorisation of how much radioactivity the plant would be permitted to discharge into the environment. This triggered a statutory public consultation period.
Around the same time, BNFL found itself questioned in the courts as parents alleged that their children had died of leukaemia, caused by radiation from reprocessing, which has been going on at Sellafield since the early Fifties. In January, the British Medical Journal published a further study confirming that children around Sellafield have been and are still dying of leukaemia more frequently than is usual.
Against such a background, how is Michael Howard, the Secretary of State for the Environment, going to justify the political decision he must take to increase the volumes of radioactive waste that Sellafield will discharge when both Thorp and the existing reprocessing plant are operating?
All this time, the Greenpeace campaign had clearly tapped a vein of deep and widespread public unease, although it was counterbalanced by a petition raised by the nuclear industry itself containing 17,500 signatures, mainly from its own workers.
But the British nuclear industry is not marching in step on this one. Just as HMIP was mulling over the discharge authorisations, a public inquiry opened into Scottish Nuclear's proposals to store spent fuel indefinitely rather than sending it to Thorp for reprocessing.
Ironically, it was Japan, BNFL's most important customer, which unwittingly did most damage to its image. No one in officialdom quite anticipated that the Akatsuki Maru, sent to Cherbourg to ship a load of plutonium back to Japan, would be banned from so many countries' territorial waters that it would have to creep stealthily across the world's oceans like a leper, carrying enough nuclear material to make more than 100 nuclear bombs. Suddenly, Whitehall woke up to the fact that at least 20 such plutonium shipments will have to leave Barrow-in-Furness if Thorp reprocesses Japanese spent fuel as planned.
A further international dimension was added with the election of Bill Clinton. Traditionally, Democratic administrations have been more suspicious of the plutonium economy than the Republicans.
BNFL has consistently maintained that Thorp will make a profit of at least pounds 500m on firm contracts for its first 10 years. This takes into account the cost of knocking the radioactive plant down - some 50 years after the end of its life. BNFL predicts that a nine-month delay in starting the plant will eat a pounds 108m hole into that profit, while the company would make a pounds 500m loss if the plant does not start up at all.
But the fate of Thorp probably will be decided in Bonn. German law currently mandates reprocessing as the only acceptable way of dealing with spent nuclear fuel. Later this year, the German government hopes to have achieved a cross-party consensus on the country's energy policy, embracing the views of the Socialists, who oppose nuclear power, as well as the ruling Christian Democrats.
When that happens, German utilities will no longer be legally compelled to send fuel to Sellafield (or to Cap La Hague in France) for reprocessing. Instead, they can opt for disposing of their spent fuel directly into an underground repository.
Dr Arnulf Matting, of the German Environment Ministry, conceded that 'from a strictly economic point of view, it might be better to go to direct disposal from the beginning' instead of reprocessing. But officials believe the French and British have locked the German nuclear industry into contracts from which it cannot escape without paying impossibly heavy penalties.
As a result, according to Dr Wolfgang Breyer, a spokesman for the reactor and fuel manufacturing company Kraftwerk Union, 'a lot of separated plutonium will be shipped back to Germany'. This will not be welcome. 'It is a proliferation and environmental hazard,' he says.
To cope with this, the Germans have devised a complex plan. They will make new nuclear fuel containing a mixture of plutonium and uranium, even though such mixed oxide fuel (MOX) is almost twice the price of ordinary uranium fuel. They will then 'burn' the MOX in their existing reactors, making it so radioactive as to discourage most bomb-makers. Then, they will bury it.
Logically, of course, it would be cheaper and more straightforward simply to bury existing radioactive spent fuel straight away, without going to the expense of reprocessing it and making mixed oxide fuel, only to irradiate it again, then bury it.
The Germans believe they cannot get out of their existing contracts for the first 10 years of Thorp. But, in one official's words, 'it is rather probable' that the Neuvertrage (covering the second tranche of Thorp's operations, post- 2000) 'will not be fulfilled'. Although BNFL's Japanese customers do want their fuel reprocessed and do want the plutonium, it is hard to see how Thorp could make a profit after the year 2000 without the Germans.
The decision on Thorp rests with Michael Howard, who has the authority to call another inquiry. That would at least make public the arguments that are now being rehearsed behind the closed doors of Whitehall.
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