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Last Updated: Tuesday, 26 August, 2003, 15:50 GMT 16:50 UK
Is the future nuclear?
By Becky Branford
BBC News Online

Thorp reprocessing plant at Sellafield
Is the future looking dim for nuclear power?
Nuclear reprocessing was once seen as the key to a virtually unlimited supply of power.

But British Nuclear Fuels (BFNL) has acknowledged that one of Britain's best known nuclear plants - Sellafield, in Cumbria - is likely to cease its reprocessing activities in the next decade.

Its thermal oxide reprocessing plant - Thorp - is running at only about half capacity and major difficulties have been encountered trying to dispose of a highly radioactive liquid by-product.

It's the lack of political decision and commitment with regard to what's called the 'back end' of the nuclear process
John Large
Nuclear industry expert
High relative costs, public fears over safety and proliferation, and the difficulties of disposing safely of highly radioactive waste products have left the future of nuclear power in doubt.

We asked experts in the field what they think the future holds for nuclear power.

For Bill Nuttall, head of the Technology Policy degree programme at the Judge Institute of Management in Cambridge, it is essential to separate the two strands of nuclear power generation: Britain's traditional model based upon reprocessing of used fuel and the alternative "once-through" cycle, where uranium fuel rods are simply used once and then disposed of as waste.

'Spherically daft'

"There's a famous quote about reprocessing," Dr Nuttall said.

"'Reprocessing is spherically daft' - it is ridiculous from whichever direction it is viewed."

Reprocessing technology, he says, was developed when industry experts believed uranium - the raw material for once-through power generation - would be so highly sought-after that its price would skyrocket.

If nuclear power is the answer to climate change, the question must have been very badly phrased
Jean McSorley
Nuclear campaign coordinator, Greenpeace
"But nuclear power didn't really take off as expected," he says, and new fresh uranium never became as expensive as Thorp's early advocates predicted.

And plutonium - along with depleted uranium, one of the products of reprocessing - is particularly hard to dispose of safely.

One method is vitrification, in which the highly radioactive liquid waste product is converted into glass blocks for eventual disposal.

But the material is particularly hard to handle, as Sellafield's managers have discovered to their cost. The method is inefficient. Vitrification plants have repeatedly broken down and cannot dispose of the waste quickly enough to allow Thorp to run at full speed.


Due to its long half-life, this type of plutonium is also vulnerable to deliberate retrieval - and could fall into the wrong hands, a spectre viewed with particular horror in the current political climate.

But Dr Nuttall also believes the demise of reprocessing "is necessary if nuclear power generation is to have a renaissance".

He cites a recent study, The Future of Nuclear Power, published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

The authors of this report recommend the use of once-through nuclear power generation as a way to lessen our dependency on fossil fuels.

Reprocessing void

For another industry expert, John Large, the end to reprocessing at Sellafield would have a significant knock-on effect overseas.

"If you're a country like Japan or Taiwan," he says, "you actually built your nuclear reactors on the understanding that France or Britain would reprocess or take care of your highly radioactive fuel.

"Now those countries have had a warning that in 2010 they might actually have to take care of their own fuel - you may have to do the research and development now to build the very expensive long-term stores that are required to look after this highly hazardous material."

But the crisis afflicting the nuclear industry over the past five years is, to Dr Large, primarily the failure of politicians to put in place the necessary planning to allow the industry to flourish.

Wind farm
For McSorley, renewables are the only real option
"It's the lack of political decision and commitment with regard to what's called the 'back end' of the nuclear process.

"The problem is the government has yet to make a decision about the long-term radioactive waste storage of Britain's mounting pile of radioactive materials. BNFL can't really make decisions until it knows what the future holds."

Jean McSorley, Greenpeace's nuclear campaign coordinator, believes the sensible response to whether nuclear energy is viable was decided long ago.

"Nuclear energy was a dream - and now it's well and truly shattered," she said.

"My family grew up near Sellafield and some members of my family worked there - and I think there was, in the early days, a sense that this was a future technology.

"But I think the disillusionment began earlier than people now realise - back in the 1960s, after the first accidents. And then, when Chernobyl happened, they remembered."

'Dinosaur mentality'

She says nuclear power has been subsidised by governments for too long already.

"The British Government is offering a 4.2bn bailout to British Energy alone - a massive distortion of the market."

The old argument that nuclear power can be a realistic alternative to climate-harming fossil fuels, she says, was abandoned long ago.

"If nuclear power is the answer to climate change, the question must have been very badly phrased. To present one major hazard as the solution to another major hazard is a nonsense.

"This is a dinosaur mentality that resists change. We know that alternatives are out there... that the renewables work."

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