Gordon Brown says the UK is at the forefront of a global 'nuclear renaissance'. But despite all the rhetoric, the real picture is grim, writes John Sauven for The Guardian's Comment is free.
Just this week Prime Minister Gordon Brown confidently assured us that the UK was at the forefront of a global "nuclear renaissance" and that within a few years we'd be home to at least eight bright, shining new reactors. We're told a week is a long time in politics, but it must seem an absolute eternity to the ever more bedraggled British nuclear industry.
Yesterday the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) published its annual report and the predictable news was that the cost of decommissioning existing reactors and dealing with our legacy of radioactive waste has rocketed yet again. The bill now stands at a whopping £73bn, up from £53bn in 2006. That's an increase equivalent to the entire cost of the London 2012 Olympics each year.
Some experts believe that the real total might be more than £85bn. This is a staggering amount of taxpayers' money. Just to put the figure into context, it's about the same cost as the entire Apollo Programme that took man to the moon. Sadly, unlike JFK's lunar mission, in this case we have nothing to celebrate. What that money buys us is merely desperate grappling with the radioactive and toxic legacy of nuclear power.
The NDA claims the overall figure will be kept down because it will generate revenue through its commercial operations. But the idea that the NDA's commercial operations can guarantee this income is laughable. A big slice of the revenue they want to rely on for a century or more depends on two of the biggest white elephants in nuclear industry history - Thorp and the Sellafield Mox Plant. The Thorp reprocessing facility was shut for years following dangerous radioactive leaks and is now closed until Christmas while a new evaporator is fitted. Meanwhile it was recently announced to surprisingly little fanfare that the Mox plant, which cost nearly half a billion pounds, has produced next to nothing since it was built. Relying on these for a guaranteed income is like putting your faith in a sprig of flowers to ward of the plague.
The fact that the NDA is playing a central role in working out how much waste from new reactors might cost to dispose of should make all of us stop and think about the merits of any new nuclear programme. The taxpayer is picking up the tab for all these failures and cost increases now, and as the Public Accounts Committee stated recently, it is impossible to guarantee that the taxpayer will not pick up the tab for new nuclear power stations too. Government promises that there will be no subsides for its new nuclear programme are almost worthless.
Despite all the rhetoric and improbable promises about the benefits of new nuclear reactors, the real picture is grim. Much like the recent news that British Energy is paying twice as much to get two of its creaking UK reactors back on line (the bill is now more than £100m). And the rumours that French state-owned nuclear utility Electricite de France is having second thoughts about buying British Energy.
But before we conclude that this is a British malaise, this week brought the startling announcement from France that all its nuclear reactors must now be checked so that leaks of radioactive waste into local rivers, as happened at one site last week, don't happen anywhere else. This comes hot on the heels of the construction blunders at the new reactor site in Flamanville that led to the French nuclear authority suspending the project. These are the reactors and companies that are touted to deliver Brown's "nuclear renaissance", but unless stopped, the prospect is of a much more disastrous and expensive rerun.
A fall from the giddy heights of Brown's expansive nuclear dreams at the start of the week takes some beating. However, the one thing the nuclear industry really excels at is shooting itself in the foot. Which means we can probably expect more of the same before the summer's out.