Letter: BNFL denials aren't credible

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THE letter from BNFL's chairman, John Guinness, (21 November) has made it hard to continue standing aside from the debate on the Thorp nuclear reprocessing plant.

To observe that the used fuel to be reprocessed is enough to supply the UK with electricity for two years is no more relevant than asserting that it is enough to make thousands of nuclear weapons. Neither will happen. But the plutonium will nevertheless exacerbate the security problem arising from the global plutonium surplus. Assuming promises about the civil use of plutonium from Thorp are maintained, which is obviously impossible to guarantee, Thorp's output will still displace efforts to burn up the current surplus of plutonium in countries where it is more vulnerable to state or terrorist diversion.

The profits of pounds 500m quoted by BNFL depend upon many debatable assumptions as well as details of the contracts which remain secret. They have not been adequately compared with the possible profits from storing the spent fuel, and they do not include the costs of security to guard the plutonium at Sellafield, in transit, and in receiving countries. What are these costs and who will bear them?

To say that reprocessing results in less nuclear waste must require an unusual definition of waste. The volume of high- plus intermediate-level waste which requires long-term secure disposal is much larger than that of the input spent fuel. And is the statement that 'it is up to each country to find a disposal site' not equivalent to saying the UK intends to return waste to countries irrespective of their facilities for handling it safely?

BNFL, with its long experience in handling and safekeeping fissionable material, could play a major role in the resolution of the world's plutonium, nuclear waste and decommissioning problems which have to be addressed whatever the future for nuclear power. Blanket denials that reprocessing can exacerbate such problems do not bode well for our ability to address them intelligently.

Michael Grubb, Trevor Taylor

The Royal Institute of International Affairs, London SW1