Steve Connor: The nuclear industry must learn its lesson and stop building these white elephants

  • @SteveAConnor

When the troubled Sellafield Mox Plant was built in the 1990s it had to wait several years before it was given an operating licence. The principal justification for awarding the licence in 2001 was the belief that it would supply hundreds of tonnes of mixed oxide (Mox) fuel to Japanese reactors and so provide a cash benefit for UK plc.

British Nuclear Fuels, the company running Sellafield at the time, insisted that it had enough interest from Japanese power companies to justify licensing the plant, although this "interest" amounted to little more than letters of intent stating that the Japanese companies "supported" the opening of the Mox plant.

We now know that only one Japanese company – Chubu Electric Power, which operates the Hamaoka power plant – has a definite contract with Sellafield, now run by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority. The other nine or so Japanese power companies are watching to see whether this order is fulfilled before they sign any contracts.

It now appears that the Hamaoka complex may well have to shut down because of fears relating to the fact that it sits on two geological faults. If it does, then this would surely spell the end for the first and only Japanese contract for reprocessed nuclear fuel made at the Sellafield Mox Plant.

Some £1.34bn has already been spent on building and operating the Sellafield Mox Plant. British taxpayers will be expected to spend a further £800m or so on running it for the rest of this decade, and then there will be another bill for about £150m to decommission this expensive heap of radioactive metal.

Local councils and politicians are understandably keen to keep as many highly skilled jobs in the region as possible, which is why they are supporting a government plan to build a second Mox plant at a cost of some £6bn to erode the mountain of British plutonium waste.

But can we trust those in the nuclear industry to get it right this time? They may have learnt something about the technical shortcomings of making Mox fuel but have they learnt anything about the vagaries of the Mox market? Mox fuel is an expensive product compared to the alternative uranium fuel, which continues to be cheap and plentiful.

If Chubu Electric has to close Hamaoka, it could spell the end of further Mox contracts with Sellafield. It would further underline the fact that Fukushima has changed the nuclear landscape in more ways than one.