In an age of global terror, the nuclear industry is unsafe - at any price

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The Independent Online

Unless the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior and the other members of a small armada of vessels succeed in stopping them, the Pacific Teal and Pacific Pintail will safely dock this morning at Barrow-in-Furness. The eco-friendly naming of those ships belies their cargoes: five tons of nuclear fuel from Japan, en route to the British Nuclear Fuels facility at Sellafield.

The fact that the material, originally from Sellafield, was rejected by the Japanese when it was discovered that safety records at BNFL had been falsified, should only heighten BNFL"s embarrassment. But no. The complacency and arrogance that has characterised the British nuclear establishment shines through: "We've been carrying out these kind of radioactive transports for 30 years in complete safety and security." That may be true, but it does not mean that those transports are desirable, or that they are a risk worth taking in an age of globalised terror.

Indeed, it may not be too much to claim that the viability of the whole nuclear industry, never very great, has been virtually destroyed by the events of 11 September. We have heard few assurances that our nuclear installations are, or could be, protected against a Jumbo jet full of fuel crashing into them. How would British Energy, virtually bust as it is, pay for such safety measures?

It is certainly relevant to note that so much of the current anxiety about Saddam Hussein's Iraq and other 'rogue states" stems from the ease with which they can obtain weapons-grade nuclear material, a situation that the British enthusiasm for international trade in radioactive material can only make worse. These are matters that must be given a proper airing in the Government's forthcoming white paper on energy policy. Given Downing Street's reputed enthusiasm for all things nuclear, however, that will probably prove to be a vain hope.

But the immediate question remains the international trade in this particular material – mixed uranium and plutonium oxide fuel, or Mox. The central argument against the Mox reprocessing facility at Sellafield is that, even ignoring for a moment safety concerns, it is wildly uneconomic. Mox comes in the form of inch-long ceramic pellets that are slotted into stainless steel rods, which are loaded into a nuclear reactor. An alternative fuel, however, is uranium, which is now much cheaper than it was when the decision to build the Mox plant was taken.

Moreover, the £150m that the Sellafield Mox plant is expected to earn over its life will not cover the £473m cost of building the plant, a state-of-the-art operation where lasers and computers control the making of Mox fuel rods from reprocessed nuclear fuel. Nor do the profits take into account the enormous costs of decommissioning the contaminated components of the Mox plant when its working life comes to an end within the next 20 years.

The last consultation on the project, by the accountants Arthur D Little, concluded that "there is a robust economic case for proceeding with the Sellafield Mox plant" – but only by leaving aside the costs of building the plant in its financial analysis.

The truth, of course, is that the British nuclear programme is supported mainly because of its military importance and because it offers a superficially easy way to cut carbon dioxide emissions. Neither argument is remotely compelling if the effects of a serious accident or terrorist action are taken into account. Nuclear power is unsafe, at any price.