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Friday, July 23, 1999 Published at 23:28 GMT 00:28 UK


Greens mock nuclear fuel firm's plans

Inside Sellafield: Will the Mox plant prove a saviour, or a liability?

By Environment Correspondent Alex Kirby

Plans by the state-owned British Nuclear Fuels Ltd (BNFL) to produce a new form of reactor fuel have been derided by Friends of the Earth (FoE).

BNFL is awaiting a UK Government go-ahead to commission a plant producing commercial quantities of the new Mox (mixed plutonium/uranium oxide) fuel.

Some 10% of the fuel is plutonium, and there are fears that it could fairly easily be used for making nuclear weapons.

Forecasts questioned

BNFL denies this, and says the plant - at Sellafield in Cumbria, north-west England - would be both safe and profitable. But FoE have published a report written for the group by three independent experts.

[ image: French Mox fuel - can BNFL produce it for less?]
French Mox fuel - can BNFL produce it for less?
They are Mike Sadnicki and Fred Barker (members of the government's Radioactive Waste Management Advisory Committee) and Gordon MacKerron, head of the energy programme at the Science Policy Research Unit, University of Sussex.

All three wrote the report - "Analysis of the Economic Case for the Sellafield MOX Plant" - in their personal capacities.

The report says the plant's likely scale of losses "would make the sale of BNFL shares, recently announced by the government, unattractive to any intelligent investor".

In June, ministers said they thought the plant could make a profit of at least £100m and pay for all its decommissioning and clean-up costs.

The authors used the methodology and model chosen by the PA Consulting Group, commissioned by the Environment Agency, to assess the economic case for the plant.

Few contracts so far

PA said BNFL would need to secure contracts representing 30% to 40% of its "reference case" (the amount of work it hopes to attract) for the plant to break even and pay all its costs.

So far, FoE say, contracts for 6.7% of the reference case have been signed.

[ image: Sellafield waits to hear whether the new plant can start work]
Sellafield waits to hear whether the new plant can start work
The report says BNFL would have to charge around £2,000 a kilogram for the fuel to break even at 30-40% of the reference case - significantly more than the French reprocessor, COGEMA, charges.

But if BNFL brought the price down to £750 per kg, "it could not break even at 150% of its reference case".

To make the forecast profit of £100m, it would have to charge £1,250 per kg, and achieve 90%.

The report estimates that BNFL has:

  • A 36% chance of breaking even with the new plant
  • A 15% chance of making a profit of £100m or more
  • A 5% chance of making a profit of £230m or more

FoE says the report shows that ministers "have no rational basis for sanctioning the full operation of the MOX plant". BNFL said it had not seen the report and could not comment in detail.

But it said the PA Consulting Group had confirmed that the economic case for the plant was "strongly positive".

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