A leak too far

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The Independent Online

Leaks have ended many careers. But few have so richly deserved to come to a premature close than the sorry history of the Sellafield Thorp reprocessing plant, Britain's most controversial industrial installation. This leak - of some 83,000 litres of highly radioactive liquid from used nuclear fuel - is far more serious than the usual whisper in a journalist's ear, or the passing of a furtive brown envelope. Incredibly, as we report on page one today, it went undetected for up to nine months while warning signs were missed. It amounts to Britain's most serious nuclear incident in 13 years, and could have turned into a real catastrophe. Thorp, and the Sellafield plant as a whole, have been responsible for a scandalous catalogue of misdemeanours over the years. But this is a leak too far.

Leaks have ended many careers. But few have so richly deserved to come to a premature close than the sorry history of the Sellafield Thorp reprocessing plant, Britain's most controversial industrial installation. This leak - of some 83,000 litres of highly radioactive liquid from used nuclear fuel - is far more serious than the usual whisper in a journalist's ear, or the passing of a furtive brown envelope. Incredibly, as we report on page one today, it went undetected for up to nine months while warning signs were missed. It amounts to Britain's most serious nuclear incident in 13 years, and could have turned into a real catastrophe. Thorp, and the Sellafield plant as a whole, have been responsible for a scandalous catalogue of misdemeanours over the years. But this is a leak too far.

Long before the failure of a badly designed pipe deep in Thorp's bowels, the plant had become Britain's biggest and most dangerous white elephant, serving no useful purpose, burning vast quantities of money, and making the problems of nuclear waste and proliferation worse.

It was not supposed to be like this. The plant was designed to fulfil what might seem to be the environmentalist's ideal, recycling used nuclear fuel by "reprocessing" - separating uranium and plutonium from waste so that it could be reused. The idea was that they would be needed to power a huge expansion of nuclear energy. As the peaceful atom spread rapidly around the world, it was argued, the uranium used to fuel it would become scarce. Reprocessing could recover much of it to boost supplies, while the plutonium could be used in planned "fast breeder" reactors which, apparently miraculously, would create more usable fuel than they burned.

The vast expansion of nuclear power never happened. The fast breeder reactor programme failed and was abandoned more than a decade ago. Uranium remained plentiful, and the world became awash with unwanted plutonium from decommissioned weapons and reprocessing plants. Meanwhile, the cost of reprocessing was a key factor in the collapse of British Energy, the nuclear power generator. The process actually makes handling nuclear waste more difficult, and by producing plutonium increases the danger of the raw material for nuclear bombs falling into the hands of terrorists. And, last but not least, Thorp did not even work properly.

Nearly 30 years ago, the United States saw the radioactive writing on the wall and abandoned reprocessing. The British nuclear establishment - and the Department of Trade and Industry, which owns Sellafield - pressed stubbornly on. As it became ever clearer that Thorp was a white elephant, their response was to build it a mate - a plant to make so-called "Mox" fuel out of the uranium and plutonium it produced. This was an even dodgier proposition, and has proved to be an even greater disaster: the fuel is much more expensive than ordinary nuclear fuel; the plant's economics are appalling; it works even less well than Thorp; and it vastly increases the danger of proliferation and nuclear terrorism by causing plutonium to be transported around the world.

Enough is enough. The time has come to close Thorp or, rather, not to reopen it after the accident. Even much of the nuclear industry would heave a huge sigh of relief. To mix wildlife metaphors, the white elephant has long been an albatross around its neck, costing it money and attracting public opprobrium by its appalling performance and negligent management. Everyone agrees that the next generation of nuclear reactors - should there be one, and we retain an open mind on their desirability - will not use reprocessing. This is a technology whose time has not so much passed, as has never come, and never will. This leak should be Thorp's last.

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