BNFL pollution risk 'double the reported level'

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The future of BNFL's reprocessing plant at Sellafield was dealt a further blow yesterday after the Nuclear Energy Agency revealed unexpectedly higher risks of pollution.

The reprocessing of nuclear waste is twice as polluting as the alternative of storing spent fuel, says an agency report, which lends weight to calls for the closure of the Cumbria plant. A six-year investigation by the agency, an arm of theOrganisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, concluded reprocessing is dirtier than storage, even when the most optimistic assumptions about radiation doses are used.

The report was prepared for the 15-nation Ospar Commission on marine pollution in June to discuss proposals from Denmark and Ireland aimed at closing Sellafield's Thorp reprocessing operation "with immediate effect".

Although the agency is seen as a broadly pro-nuclear body, its assessment demonstrates that the radiation doses suffered by people will be at least 80 per cent higher than if spent fuel was simply stored.

Yet the agency says pollution caused by nuclear reprocessing - or "recycling" as it prefers to call it - is roughly comparable to waste storage, which is the end product of a "once through" system of mining uranium ore and burning the fuel in nuclear reactors.

Gordon MacKerron, head of energy at Sussex University's Science Policy Research Unit, believes the actual radiation emissions from reprocessing are far higher than those suggested in the agency's estimates. He said there is a flaw in its argument, which biases the radiation emissions in favour of reprocessing, making it appear even less polluting than it really is.

Reprocessing involves separating the plutonium from a mixture of uranium and plutonium in spent fuel, and using the highly dangerous element to make mixed oxide (Mox) fuel which can be reused in some nuclear reactors.

The agency assumes all the plutonium in spent fuel will be "recycled", which makes reprocessing appear relatively cleaner and more economical than if only some of the plutonium is reused. This is based on the agency's belief that producing Mox by recycling all spent plutonium would avoid the pollution caused by mining about 21 per cent of the world demand for uranium ore.

"But the world's use of Mox is so limited that a maximum of 3 per cent of the uranium that would be needed in the once-through cycle is in fact saved by plutonium use," Dr MacKerron writes in his Ospar submission, commissioned by Greenpeace.

"There is no interest in recycling reprocessed uranium. In other words, the 'recycling' option involves very limited recycling. It is more accurately a 'reprocessing' option.

"The public radiological dose from the 'recycling' option is unambiguously higher than for the once-through cycle."

Steve Thomas, a member of Dr MacKerron's energy unit, said the economics of reprocessing have changed now the price of uranium is at an all-time low, making Mox fuel more expensive. "Reprocessing is about separating a dangerous material [plutonium] that is desperately embarrassing, given that you don't know what to do with it," he said. "If you don't want it, don't create it."

Helen Wallace, a Greenpeace scientist, said: "Reprocessing is a dirty, dangerous and pointless industry. There is no excuse for needlessly pouring millions of litres of nuclear waste into the sea each day."