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Last Updated: Tuesday, 28 March 2006, 18:32 GMT 19:32 UK
Sellafield awaits nuclear power's rebirth
By Jorn Madslien
BBC News business reporter at Sellafield

If you take the view that the West Lakes in Cumbria is a budding Klondike, then Dawn Marriott is one of the pioneers.

Sellafield's workers know that their lives are about to be changed

Lounging in the bar at the Ennerdale Country House Hotel - one of the swishest within commuting distance of the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing plant - Ms Marriott has reason to be cheerful.

Her company, Capita Resourcing, has just bagged a small piece of the action of what could become one of the fastest-growing industries in the land.

From 1 April this year, the Capita Group subsidiary will take over the management and recruitment of temporary workers at Sellafield, under a contract worth 150m over the next three years, with an option for an extension.

The deal "will bring significant flexibility and efficiency to [the clean-up firm that manages the Sellafield site] British Nuclear Group (BNG)", according to Ms Marriott.

Different contracts

As one of the hotel's waitresses discreetly asks whether Ms Marriott might be prepared to consider her curriculum vitae, it becomes clear that she is about to become a very popular woman indeed.

BNFL spokesman Neil Stagg
Thorp is a good money earner
BNFL spokesman Neil Stagg

After all, finding work at Sellafield has never been easy.

British Nuclear Fuels Limited (BNFL) - which owns BNG and which is itself 100% owned by the UK government - has traditionally paid its staff more than other employers in the area.

Those working here also enjoy better perks and longer holidays than many of their neighbours, a BNFL spokeswoman points out.

But as the commuters wind their way along the A595 from Whitehaven and nearby villages, where many Sellafield workers live, they are only too aware that the good times may well lie behind them.

Temporary workers are rarely offered the same terms as members of staff, so already there are people doing the same or similar jobs at Sellafield for significantly different returns.

No limits

At times, such developments get trade unions up in arms. But Peter Kane, the local GMB union representative at Sellafield, is more focused on long-term job creation in the area.

"There are plants on this site that have been here since the 1940s, and they need decommissioning," he says, obviously eyeing a hefty chunk of the estimated 56bn cash pile that the government is expected to spend on cleaning up Britain's nuclear installations.

But in addition, he believes, Sellafield should be getting ready for the rebirth of nuclear power in the UK, a revival that could ensure both power for the British people and jobs for those living near this former Lake District beauty spot for years to come.

Peter Kane, the local GMB union representative at Sellafield
GMB representative Peter Kane has high hopes for the future

"There is space here to build one or two reactors," Mr Kane says, stressing that this would have the added advantage of using plutonium recovered from the reprocessing of spent fuel.

"The way forward is to make it into fuel, burn it, and make it safe that way," he insists.

In the eyes of Mr Kane, it seems there is no limit to what could be done at Sellafield.

"We wouldn't be against [a central storage facility] here, depending on the benefits for the local community," Mr Kane says, referring to efforts by Nirex, the company in charge of the long-term management of radioactive waste in the UK, which recently gained its independence from the nuclear industry.

Nirex has called for the construction of a deep nuclear waste repository to be constructed half a kilometre underground, though a spokesman says it is too early to discuss where such a facility would be located.

Burst pipe

Central to Mr Kane's high hopes for the future is BNFL's ability to make money from reprocessing spent fuel that is shipped in from power plants, both in the UK and abroad.

"Having the facility to continue with the reprocessing would preserve jobs," says Mr Kane.

And not just jobs for nuclear industry workers. There would also be work for builders and contractors, and for outside suppliers.

Yet rather than a flurry of activity, there is an eerie silence in the vast building that should have been a showcase of Sellafield's earnings potential - the Thorp thermal oxide reprocessing plant.

Shear cave at Sellafield
Contaminated material is handled by remote controlled equipment

"Thorp is a good money earner," insists BNFL spokesman Neil Stagg as he shows off long lines of 100-tonne flasks that are filled with spent nuclear fuel.

The flasks' gamma radiation emissions heat the water in the 14-metre-deep cooling pools into which they are submerged for up to five years.

"You could have another 20 years or more out of it and generate income," he says, moving on to the cleaning pools, where a regular beeping sound indicates that the radiation levels are at safe levels.

The technology on display is awesome, making it easy to accept Mr Stagg's assertion that "this is the best of British technology, this plant".

Take the shear cave, where remote-controlled blades stand ready to cut spent fuel rods as if they were slicing cucumbers.

Even the remote-controlled tool that is used to change the blades inside the sealed cave is sophisticated.

Mr Stagg calls it "a million-pound screwdriver".

Accidental leak

But there is a problem: following an accident, the lucrative process of solvent extraction of reusable uranium and plutonium ground to a halt last April.

Sealed chamber
Containing the radioactivity is crucial to protect both lives and reputation

Essentially, what happened was that a pipe burst and 83 cubic metres of contaminated liquids leaked into a concrete cell lined with stainless steel.

The accident was classified as a "level three incident"; one of the worst in Sellafield's history. Yet BNG insists no one was harmed and no radioactivity was released outside the building.

Nevertheless, the accident forced the immediate closure of Thorp, which has been closed ever since and is expected to remain so for months.

Thorp's closure is bad news for its owner BNFL, and not only because it has interrupted its revenue stream.

By extension, it is also bad news for its owner, the UK government, which wants to break up BNFL and sell the BNG-division for 1bn or more.

Selling BNG while Thorp remains closed is, in itself, tricky.

Making matters worse is an investigation into the leak by the Health and Safety Executive's Nuclear Installation Inspectorate, which could be close to bringing legal action against BNG.

An unlimited fine could be the outcome.

Investor interest

These and other headaches may mean the sale of BNG, which had initially been scheduled for this spring, now will not happen until early 2007.

Sellafield prepares for a commercial future

The sale will mark the end of BNFL as we know it.

BNFL is already a shadow of its former self, following the sale of its US nuclear power generation subsidiary Westinghouse for 2.8bn early this year, and last year's transfer of the Sellafield site, along with its clean-up liabilities, to the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA).

Once BNG is gone, BNFL would be left only with its tiny nuclear research division Nexia Solutions, which employs just 1,000 people compared with BNG's 14,000.

But BNFL's demise will not only be the end of an era; it will also mark the dawn of a new and potentially huge nuclear industry.

Great uncertainties remain and the risk is potentially enormous. Still, investors are not deterred.

"The City is sniffing around," observes one industry official.

This is the first of two features exploring the way the nuclear industry is changing. The second feature will be published on 30 March.

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