A large leak of highly radioactive liquid nuclear waste in a Sellafield nuclear waste reprocessing plant has forced British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL) to shut one of its main facilities.
Earlier this week an estimated 83 cubic metres of liquid, which contains about 20 tonnes of highly radioactive spent nuclear waste fuel dissolved in nitric acid, leaked into an enclosed stainless steel chamber in the Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant (THORP). BNFL says there is no danger to the public, but the chamber is now too radioactive to enter. Clean-up will cost millions and may lead to increased risks for those workers who have to undertake the recovery operation.
There's a clear link. The Sellafield plant, which has a history of technical problems and financial losses, was built by BNFL, which also owns Westinghouse - the company that wants to sell new reactors to the UK.
BNFL has made many claims about how safe, efficient and cost-effective the Sellafield reprocessing plant would be. BNFL and Westinghouse are now making the same claims about the new, untried, untested reactor design that they want built in the UK.
BNFL has already left us with a legacy of radioactive waste that no one wants and taxpayers are being forced to pay for. The same company is now asking us to stump up yet more in subsidies to allow it to build a new fleet of dangerous and environmentally damaging reactors.
Waste not, want not
At the Sellafield reprocessing plant, intensely radioactive spent fuel is dissolved and the unused uranium and weapons-useable plutonium is separated from high level liquid wastes. The spent fuel is transported from nuclear power stations in the UK, Europe and Japan, the transport of which also poses grave security and environmental risks.
The original idea was that the uranium and plutonium separated in this way would be reused for reactor fuel. But today most nuclear utilities do not have an economically viable use for the separated material; leaving reprocessing a pretty much pointless activity which does nothing to reduce the amount of radioactivity we have to deal with and which actually increases the volumes of nuclear waste we have to manage.
The uranium and plutonium separated from British waste fuel is simply stockpiled. It would be perfectly feasible to store the spent nuclear waste fuel, rather than reprocess it which incurs much more risk and cost.
Similarly, there are no contracts by some of BNFL's foreign customers to reuse the uranium and plutonium recovered through reprocessing, posing the question of how and when this material - particularly the weapons-usable plutonium - will be returned.
Who's paying for it?
Charged with cleaning up all of this useless waste is the newly formed Nuclear Decommissioning Authority which took over ownership of Sellafield at the beginning of April. The authority was set up by the government with a remit to clean up the nuclear industry's radioactive waste legacy. It has a £2.2 billon cleanup budget for its first year of operation.
However, the authority is also expected to get almost half its income from operating nuclear facilities like the Sellafield reprocessing plants which continue to produce nuclear waste. It was estimated that the income from Sellafield's THORP reprocessing plant for the coming year would have contributed £560m to the authority's coffers.
The accident looking like a financial disaster for the authority, and the taxpayer, since income from THORP, calculated to be more than £1m a day, is supposed to help pay for the cleanup of redundant nuclear facilities. It might now prove to be an even bigger drain on the public purse if the government has to fund the recovery and clean up operations.
BNFL is claiming it cannot give an exact time for how long the plant is expected to be closed, but it is likely to be four to six months at the very least. That means approximately £120m-£180m in lost earnings - and doesn't include the massive costs of clean up!
Because of the Sellafield reprocessing leak, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority will now find itself short of cash for the urgent task of cleaning the nuclear industry's mess, unless the government bails it out with yet more taxpayers' money.
What should happen now?
The cost of cleaning up and repairing THORP could prove to be massive. Now is the time for the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority to review the future of the plant and consider leaving it closed. This would avoid any more unnecessary reprocessing, lessen the amount of radioactive waste created and discharged and also lessen the impact on the public purse.