The review by the Department of Trade and Industry is expected to include an environmental impact study to assess the cost of decommissioning for nuclear power stations into the next century.
The Government is under pressure to conduct swiftly the review by Nuclear Electric, which is keen to be privatised in 1996, before the next general election. The review will study the feasibility of privatisation and the prospects for a new generation of pressurised water reactors.
Ministers fear the taxpayer could be left with a long-term bill for clearing up after decommissioning.
Meanwhile, it emerged that operations at British Nuclear Fuels' controversial new pounds 2.8bn reprocessing plant at Sellafield in Cumbria have been halted for three months after four tonnes of highly corrosive nitric acid spilled out on to the floor of a service room inside the plant.
The accident happened on 29 March, just two days after BNFL had started the first stage in reprocessing: 'shearing' or chopping up spent nuclear fuels rods. Although the company announced at the time that shearing had not been interrupted, it now says that it has 'put on hold the shearing of further fuel until all the necessary remedial work was completed'. The company estimates that repairs should be completed sometime in June.
It is clear that internal damage to the Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant (Thorp) was more extensive than the company disclosed at the time. The acid (which was not radioactive) destroyed monitoring and control instruments, electrical cabling and the cable supports.
About 50 workers were evacuated from the plant to protect them from the acid fumes.
The accident happened at an embarrassing time for Thorp whose start-up had been delayed for nearly two years, pending government permission for it to operate.
The nuclear industry has had to spend more than pounds 100m upgrading the safety of Britain's first generation Magnox reactors to meet standards imposed by the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate.
The NII yesterday published a review of generic long-term safety issues of the ageing reactors.
The main life-limiting factor is likely to be the integrity of the steel pressure vessel which contains the reactor core and the coolant gas.
But Dr Sam Harbison, HM Chief Nuclear Inspector, refused to say how long the stations were likely to operate for. 'The vessels are in a pretty good state for their age,' he said.
Magnox nuclear power reactor programme: NII's report on the outcome of the programme of work on generic safety issues, HSE Books, PO Box 1999, Sudbury, Suffolk; pounds 7.Reuse content