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Wednesday, 12 April, 2000, 13:09 GMT 14:09 UK
Is nuclear reprocessing a spent force?

The British nuclear industry is in trouble with the Japanese over a disputed fuel shipment - now 7,000 jobs and the future of reprocessing is on the line.

By BBC News Online's Ryan Dilley

British Nuclear Fuels claims to be the place "where science never sleeps", but its controversial nuclear reprocessing business could soon be abruptly put to bed forever.

The possible return of British mixed oxide (Mox) fuel rods from Japan, following a furore over the safety documentation accompanying them, may spell its doom.

BNFL's Thorp plant at Sellafield in Cumbria is one of only two reprocessing facilities in the world. Its work represents around a quarter of the company's business.
Thorp Reprocessing Plant, Sellafield
Thorp's closure could see 7,000 job losses

The activity directly supports some 7,000 jobs in a remote area heavily reliant on BNFL's presence.

The plant takes spent uranium fuel rods, removes impurities and recombines the uranium with plutonium, which is also produced during reprocessing, making Mox fuel to be used again in nuclear reactors.

Mox has long been portrayed as the saviour of the nuclear energy industry. By recycling uranium, it allays public qualms about waste storage and offers nations a buffer against price hikes in, once costly, uranium.

Out of reach

Throwing plutonium back into the mix is one way of putting the weapons-grade material to a non-military use, preventing its needless stockpiling in nations such as Germany and Japan.

Mox has also been put forward as a solution to it falling into the hands of pariah states with nuclear ambitions.

Its detractors have seen reprocessing as at best an expensive "utopian" dream.

One of its fiercest critics, St Andrews University international relations professor William Walker, says the whole system has been kept afloat by political will rather than economic sense.

The disputed Japanese Mox shipment may finally sink the boat.

"Reprocessing will come to a grinding halt pretty soon," says Professor Walker.

The six-gram pellets, each containing as much energy as a tonne of coal, inside Mox fuel rods are supposed to be measured manually.

False hope

The Japanese say that in a shipment last year, the records of these tests were falsified, and want BNFL to take the rods back, even if they aren't necessarily faulty.

The Swiss nuclear watchdog spotted "anomalies" in the records of another BNFL consignment which was loaded into a reactor without mishap.
Anti-Mox demo in Japan
Opinion in Japan is turning against Mox

The breaches of "quality assurance", compounded by a lukewarm safety report on Sellafield by the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate, have seen Japan, Switzerland and Germany suspend Mox imports from the UK.

More than two-thirds of BNFL's £12bn reprocessing business comes from foreign customers, mostly Japan.

The public company even built a new £300m plant, now mothballed, on the promise of more work from its star Asian client.

Rethinking Mox

Professor Walker says the troubled fuel rods sitting at the Takahama nuclear plant, which Japan wants shipped back, have given all BNFL's customers a chance to rethink their approach to Mox.

"Japan's game plan is to put a few spanners in the works, make life difficult for BNFL and the British government to get a change of policy," says Professor Walker.

Reprocessing will come to a grinding halt pretty soon

Professor William Walker
Mox and nuclear reprocessing seem to have had their day as far as the newly liberalised foreign utility companies which make up the bulk of BNFL's customers are concerned, says Dr Gordon MacKerron of the Science Policy Research Unit.

"Japan is looking for an excuse not to take Mox because it's expensive. This may be part of an opportunistic desire to get out."

Dr MacKerron says that even if BNFL gets the spent fuel for "free", the total cost of fabricating Mox exceeds that of buying new uranium.

Locked away

Reprocessing also raises nuclear proliferation issues. The plutonium it creates, even once put into Mox, is more accessible for misuse than if left locked inside spent fuel.

Governments outside the reprocessing loop, and those on the route of ships taking Mox back from Sellafield, remain unconvinced by the scheme.
BNFL's Pacific Pintail
Ship comes in: BNFL's Mox programme may run aground

Despite tight international guidelines covering vessel safety, these ships will never be completely invulnerable to accidents, says Trevor Blakley, chief executive of the Royal Institute of Naval Architects.

"You can minimise the consequences of an unexpected event, but double bottoms and enhanced stability cannot stop your ship hitting something or something hitting you."

There is also the worry, perhaps remote, that those illegally seeking plutonium for weapons production may be tempted by Mox.

Even if terrorists or the Far East's increasingly brazen pirates give BNFL's armed ships a wide berth, environmentalists may find such a high-profile target too tempting.

Turning tide

The public mood is also turning against Mox. In Japan's Wakasa Bay, home to Takahama and 14 other nuclear plants, 2,000 locals have signed a petition querying the entire policy.

Professor Walker says Japan may now push to renegotiate its old contracts with BNFL, hoping Sellafield will agree to store rather than reprocess the country's nuclear waste.

Politically, this would be a big step for the UK authorities.

Taking irradiated material from abroad to be turned into Mox and then re-exported is one thing, keeping spent fuel in this country until a solution can be found for disposal is quite another.
Nuclear fuel protective flask
Could Britain become a nuclear storage site?

As well as trying to convince the British public of the merits of waste storage and explaining away BNFL's long commitment to Mox, the closure of Thorp could stir up a storm with its disruption to Cumbria's economy.

A closed plant would also be left with a 50-tonne inventory of plutonium, the world's largest civilian stock.

Although BNFL's new broom, Norman Askew, says it won't "walk away" from its reprocessing investment, the Japanese saga may have made that a fait accompli.

If Kansai Electric Power, and its equivalents in Germany and Switzerland, turn away from Mox, Dr MacKerron doubts Thorp or the new BNFL plant will find new business.

Market forces

"The chances of finding a decent-sized market after all these safety scares seems slim."

He also says customers "would be crazy to volunteer for plutonium" if they hadn't already entered the reprocessing loop.

Turning BNFL into a storage business may prove the financial saving of the company, says Professor Walker.

The chances of [BNFL] finding a decent-sized market after all these safety scares seems slim

Dr Gordon MacKerron

"Storage is a more viable activity. It offers stable and predictable profits. I think the British public will stomach it if the terms and safety issues are addressed correctly."

In the long term, this solution may satisfy all parties, even the environmentalists who decry the transport of spent fuel and Mox across the globe.

The economic arguments for storage may even save government plans to partially sell-off BNFL, a move shelved since the Mox fiasco.

In the short-term, the public-owned company may well end up having to foot the shipping and storage bills for the Takahama Mox, despite the fact the original fuel wasn't even produced in the UK.

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28 Feb 00 | UK
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