Top scientist backs £3bn Sellafield plant, despite £2bn failure on same site
Steve Connor is the Science Editor of The Independent. He has won many awards for his journalism, including five-times winner of the prestigious British science writers’ award; the David Perlman Award of the American Geophysical Union; twice commended as specialist journalist of the year in the UK Press Awards; UK health journalist of the year and a special merit award of the European School of Oncology for his investigative journalism. He has a degree in zoology from the University of Oxford and has a special interest in genetics and medical science, human evolution and origins, climate change and the environment.
Wednesday 30 March 2011
British taxpayers should spend up to £3bn on a new facility for reprocessing nuclear waste at Sellafield, despite the site in Cumbria already having a similar plant which has cost nearly £2bn and is labelled one of the biggest industrial failures in British history.
This is the conclusion of a report by scientists which recommends a brand-new, plutonium-uranium mixed oxide (MOX) plant at Sellafield as part of Britain's nuclear "renaissance" to build a suite of nuclear power stations that could burn MOX fuel as well as conventional uranium.
The current Sellafield MOX plant cost £440m to build and the nuclear industry has squandered a further £1.5bn of taxpayers' money in operating costs and upgrades. Designed to produce 120 tonnes of MOX fuel a year for export, it has only managed 15 tonnes over nearly a decade of sub-standard operation, which was labelled by one former government minister as a catastrophic and comprehensive failure.
Despite these shortcomings, yesterday's report said that building a new reprocessing facility would allow Britain to recycle the current stockpile of 112 tonnes of plutonium left over from other reprocessed nuclear waste.
Anti-nuclear campaigners said yesterday the plan would generate more nuclear waste than it eliminates, increase costs and create new risks of nuclear proliferation.
Sir David King, the government's former chief scientific adviser and one of the authors of yesterday's report, vigorously defended the need to build more nuclear power stations, despite the disaster at the Fukushima power plant in Japan, where plutonium has leaked from the MOX fuel used in one of the four stricken reactors.
He said that doing nothing with nuclear waste is not an option and his preferred choice would be to build a new MOX reprocessing plant at Sellafield that would fabricate fresh nuclear fuel from spent fuel mixed with waste plutonium.
"Currently, the UK has a window of opportunity to deal with its nuclear material and spent fuel management and to maximise the value of its existing assets," Sir David said. "The renaissance in new nuclear build creates an advantageous way of using these legacy materials as fuel for new nuclear power plants."
Building a reprocessing plant to produce MOX fuel from nuclear waste could reduce costs to the taxpayer and create billions of pounds of economic opportunities through new skills and jobs as well as reducing carbon emissions, he added.
"The potential benefits of examining nuclear materials and spent fuel stocks as a potential asset and managing these alongside new-build reactors, through an all-encompassing UK nuclear power policy, are clarified through this investigation."
Professor Laurance Williams, an adviser on the report who was also head of the government's Nuclear Installations Inspectorate when it approved the current Sellafield MOX plant, said yesterday that the reasons why it has failed to live up to expectations were too complicated to explain, but that they were to do with its flawed design.
[The following paragraph has been corrected since publication due to incorrect information supplied by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority at the time of writing ]
The Sellafield Mox Plant has not shipped any fuel to Japan since the plant was opened in 2002. The one and only shipment of Mox from Sellafield in 1999 from an earlier "demonstration facility" had to be returned because quality control data relating to the MOX fuel pellets had been falsified by workers at British Nuclear Fuels Plc, which has since been abolished after a failed attempt to privatise the company. Sellafield is now operated by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA).
Shaun Burnie, an independent nuclear consultant working for Greenpeace Germany, said he had warned the government that the Sellafield MOX plant was flawed and would not perform as promised by the nuclear industry.
"It's a very sorry tale for the taxpayer because this facility is burning a hole in the NDA's budget. It's also obscene that people are talking of building another plant because MOX fuel makes reactors more dangerous and risks nuclear proliferation because of the ease of extracting weapons-useable plutonium from MOX fuel," Mr Burnie said.
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