Greenpeace's long-held opposition to the Sellafield Mox Plant (SMP) is rooted in its opposition to the global trade of weapons-usable plutonium for fuel in nuclear reactors. The increased risks to global security from proliferation and use of nuclear materials were vividly underscored at the weekend by Barack Obama – risks that are inherent with the proposed expansion of nuclear power.
The Sellafield plant is designed to produce mixed oxide plutonium and uranium (Mox) as a fuel for reactors, the use of which results in highly radioactive spent fuel. Underpinning the whole manufacture and trade in plutonium is the reprocessing of the spent fuel – one of the most hazardous parts of the nuclear chain.
The Mox plant has been plagued by financial and safety concerns since it was completed in 1996. Although the industry claimed the benefits of building the plant would be many, we were unconvinced. So much so, that in 2001, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth took the Government to the High Court claiming that the decision to allow British Nuclear Fuels Ltd (BNFL) to begin operation of the plant at Sellafield was unlawful as it would incur a financial loss and the predicted £200m income relied on customers that did not exist. BNFL only had contracts for less than 10 per cent of the business it hoped to attract.
However, the judge rejected the challenge and later that year it began operation. Since then the plant has been a technical, financial and political failure and comes at a time when the industry is asking the Government to make a decision on the "justification" of new reactors.
The SMP has been a staggering waste of taxpayers' money, and we doubt that these will be the full costs of this sorry saga. Just imagine what the renewable sector could have done with a subsidy like that. The failure of the Mox plant is another reminder of why the nuclear industry has become notorious for making wildly exaggerated claims about its benefits and precisely why it should treated with scepticism and mistrust.
The writer is a Greenpeace nuclear adviser