Nuclear waste plans in jeopardy

Rejection of Sellafield underground repository makes reprocessing work for foreign customers harder

The Government’s decision to halt Nirex’s plans to develop a deep underground waste repository at Sellafield could undermine plans to reprocess foreign fuel in Britain.

The reversal casts a shadow over the future of `substitution’ of the waste to be returned to overseas customers who have contracted to reprocess spent nuclear fuel at the Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant (Thorp) at Sellafield, which British Nuclear Fuels sees as the key to the site’s future.

Under the substitution scenario, BNFL would return small volumes of additional high-level waste to foreign customers rather than the tens of thousands of cubic metres of intermediate-level waste that will arise from reprocessing their fuel.

If substitution is ruled out, the foreign utilities may be required to pay for the cost of storing their intermediate-level waste until a repository is ready to accept it or take it all back home. It could well prove considerably less expensive to cancel their contracts with Thorp.

A BNFL spokesman said it was too early to speculate on who would pay for additional storage.

The protest that greeted the recent move of just four containers of high-level waste half way across Germany to a disposal site at Gorleben near Hamburg – 30,000 police were required to ensure the convoy’s safe passage – will make foreign utilities blanch at the prospect of dealing with several hundred times such volumes.

Approval of the substitution argument in principle by the 1995 British Government review of radioactive waste policy was conditional on the practice being environmentally `neutral’, and on provision being made to return intermediate-level waste to the countries of origin after 25 years if no Nirex repository was available by then.

Environment Secretary John Gummer agreed with the inspector to the public inquiry that the proposal for an underground laboratory at Sellafield should be rejected.

The letter sent on his behalf to Nirex said: `Your company does not appear to have selected this site in an objective and methodical manner, and further does not appear to have fully appreciated the limitations of its understanding of the site’.

It will take at least 10 years to develop another site to the same stage, and Nirex now faces a serious credibility problem.

`We cannot just repeat the process with Nirex going off to find another site,’ said Patrick Green, nuclear and climate campaigner at Friends of the Earth.

By Andrew Cavenagh