Leading article: An unhappy record on reprocessing

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The Independent Online

That the costs of the new evaporator needed at Britain's nuclear reprocessing facility at Sellafield have spiralled from £90m to £400m is troubling enough. That the kit will not be up and running until at least 2014 – not only four years late, but only another four years before the closure of the Thorp reprocessing plant that will use it – borders on the farcical. The biggest concern, though, is that this is just one link in a chain of expensive, mismanaged nuclear decommissioning projects that have failed to deal with the backlog of radioactive waste from as long ago as the 1950s.

There are three options for the stockpile of highly radioactive plutonium powder that is produced at Thorp: it can be buried, it can be turned into so-called "mixed oxide" (Mox) fuel for reuse in converted nuclear reactors, or it can be burnt in "fast-breed" reactors.

If only it were that simple. Fast breeders have been a pipe dream for decades. Plans for underground storage facilities are still so far from completion that there is not even an agreed site. Meanwhile, Britain's Mox programme is also in disarray. After a litany of problems, with total output a mere fraction of its intended capacity, last year's nuclear incident at Fukushima Daiichi pulled the plug on Japanese demand for Mox and the £1.34bn Sellafield plant is now set to close. Britain's fast-breeder reactor programme fared worse still, folding in the 1990s, after nearly 30 years, because the technology could not be made to work.

Taken together, Britain's efforts to reprocess its spent nuclear fuel have been characterised by incompetence, bad decisions and ballooning costs. In fairness to the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, many of the problems are the legacy of the past. Indeed, Chris Huhne – then Energy Secretary – branded the nuclear sector perhaps the most expensive failure of post-war policy-making. But it is not enough to blame the past. Although the NDA says that Evaporator D can be used for other purposes after Thorp has closed, that hardly excuses the mistaken specification. And with an ambitious nuclear new-build programme on the stocks, Britain cannot afford for the NDA to continue in the mould of its bungling predecessors.