Leading Article: A nuclear juggernaut that must be stopped

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The Independent Online
THE REALITIES of life appeared very different in 1978 when the go- ahead was given for a new nuclear reprocessing plant at Sellafield. Rocketing oil prices seemed to make nuclear power an imperative and so uranium prices also rose. The future lay with fast reactors, which used fuel more efficiently, and with reprocessing, which could provide that fuel. Britain would also offer reprocessing for other countries, providing valuable work and foreign exchange.

This is why a technological giant now stands out on the Cumbrian coastline. Thorp - thermal oxide reprocessing plant - is taller than St Paul's and has cost pounds 2.8bn. Yet it increasingly looks like a huge empty palace which should be abandoned. Unfortunately, it seems politically impossible for the Government to make the courageous decision and cut its losses. Yesterday's confusing announcements on the plant's future aptly illustrate the contradictions.

John Gummer, Secretary of State for the Environment, announced further consultation into whether the plant is justified in economic and environmental terms. In other words, 15 years after Thorp was given the go-ahead, Mr Gummer remains unsure whether the right decision was taken. Meanwhile, the Prime Minister and a clutch of cabinet ministers signed a motion giving Thorp the all-clear on questions that Mr Gummer is supposed to be considering.

The 3,000 jobs which the plant would support and pounds 9bn worth of contracts seem very attractive. But in fact the rationale for Thorp in 1993 is nothing like as strong as it was in 1978. British Nuclear Fuels is prepared to guarantee profits only of pounds 500m over 10 years. Meanwhile, fossil fuels are cheap once again. Fast reactors have been ditched as uneconomic both here and in other countries. Uranium prices have plunged, drastically reducing the potential market for reprocessed fuel.

Environmental fears have grown since the Three Mile Island accident in the United States in 1979; there is already an unexplained cluster of childhood leukaemia cases around Sellafield. Critics warn that plutonium, which Thorp would produce, could fall into the wrong hands and increase the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Most important, it is quite possible that the demand for the services of Thorp could disappear. German and Japanese customers, who helped to pay the capital costs of the programme, are tied in to reprocessing contracts for the next 10 years, although they would probably not sign them today. They would be furious if the Thorp programme were to be shelved at this late date. However, it seems very likely that subsequently the Germans will abandon reprocessing fuel in favour of domestic storage. Scottish Nuclear, another potential customer for Sellafield, is considering a similar option for its spent fuel. Japanese enthusiasm alone will not, in the long run, be enough to keep the profits flowing.

In spite of all these set-backs the Thorp juggernaut has maintained its momentum. As happened in the case of Concorde, no politician seems to have the far-sightedness to halt a programme which now has such a physical reality and would be so embarrassing to drop. These politicians will not in forthcoming decades pay the political price of mistakes made today. Yet the truth is that Thorp needs to be stopped as soon as possible.