BNFL foreign income at risk

New policy on radioactive waste threatens to kill off lucrative reprocessing work for overseas customers

By Andrew Cavenagh

A change in Government policy on radioactive waste threatens to kill off the reprocessing of foreign nuclear fuel in the UK.

The move would also increase shipments of potentially lethal material in international waters by a factor of at least 15.

At stake is the issue of waste substitution on the reprocessing contracts that British Nuclear Fuels has signed since 1976 with foreign customers, mainly Japanese and German utilities. The contracts require waste from reprocessing the fuel to be returned to the country of origin. BNFL proposes to cut the cost by substituting small additional amounts of high-level waste for the intermediate and low-level waste produced.

It said this would reduce the number of ships carrying radioactive cargos over 10 years from 200 to 15.

Foreign customers would save on transport costs, and avoid the need to build storage and disposal facilities for thousands of cubic metres of intermediate level waste.

The previous government gave substitution conditional approval in its 1995 White Paper – subject to there being a permanent UK repository for intermediate level waste within 25 years.

The dismissal last year of Nirex’s plans to develop such a facility at Sellafield has ruled this out and the Government now looks likely to do the same for substitution.

Industry minister John Battle said last month that BNFL’s post-1976 contracts had options to return the wastes and ‘Government policy is that the options should be exercised and the wastes returned’.

A Government spokesman added: ‘The policy of this Government is that everything goes back to the country it comes from.’

A decision will not be formally announced until the Government concludes a review of radioactive waste policy later this year.

BNFL said in a statement: ‘We have absolutely no evidence that this policy has changed and are continuing to offer substitution as an integral part of new business contracts.’

BNFL is only too aware that without substitution reprocessing will not be viable for overseas customers.