End of the nuclear winter?

The newly created Nuclear Decommissioning Authority will not only clean up the UK’s old reactors, it could be just what the industry needs to clean up its public image.

If Tony Blair does serve a full third term he will at some point come under intense pressure to confront the issue of nuclear power.

If, however, the vicissitudes of political life allow him to defer making decisions on the subject for one last time, there will be no escape for the succeeding regime. Because the single solution to our shrinking power generation capacity and stated goals of reducing greenhouse gas emissions is nuclear power.

If a commitment is not made to build more nuclear power stations within the next few years the UK will be unable to avoid some degree of power blackouts, and fail to realise the chance of cutting CO2 output in line with the Kyoto targets.

In recent weeks the pro-nuclear argument has found support from new quarters, including senior figures in the renewable energy sector. Lord May, the president of the Royal Society, was the latest to add his voice to the call for a mixed source of electricity in which nuclear must play a significant part. He also criticised the party leaders for not addressing the issue.

Given Mr Blair’s rhetoric on his capacity for making unpopular decisions vis-à-vis Iraq, maybe he will eventually do the same on nuclear power. To date, however, his government has approached the issue in an oblique fashion, yet it is possible that Labour is quietly going about the preparation for a nuclear renaissance.

One step that might fit with such a strategy is the establishment of the ‘shadow’ Nuclear Decommissioning Authority this month. The publicity surrounding its inauguration was noticeable by its absence. Admittedly the NDA, which is charged with organising the disposal of the UK’s existing nuclear reactors, does not ‘go live’ until April 2005.

But had the government been inclined, it could have portrayed the birth of the NDA as the start of a triumphal endeavour to rid the UK of nuclear power, bin the old technology and prepare the ground for a future of clean renewable energy. So far it hasn’t breathed a word. Is it possible then to make a different assumption about the government’s attitude? Does the NDA in fact represent an important step towards making nuclear power more acceptable to the public? Since the accident at Chernobyl the UK’s nuclear industry has gone into decline. But something of a transformation has also taken place. What’s left of a once forward-looking, ‘white-heat’ industry is now a clean-up merchant, concentrating its best brains on the old reactors that need shutting down and dismantling. Many in the industry accept that this phase has to be completed successfully to make nuclear power more acceptable in the future.

Although the entire clean-up operation in the UK is expected to take more than 100 years (and cost many billions of pounds) – time that the country does not have to convince the public to accept more nuclear power stations – the arrival of the NDA could still have an impact in the short term.

Its creation will formerly establish the decommissioning industry. The actual work of decommissioning will be carried out by site licensee companies (SLCs) such as BNFL and the UKAEA under contract to the NDA. However, alongside this the Authority will bring together skills and resources, conduct research, provide education and training and provide a viable future and valuable experience for nuclear engineers.

According to an explanatory note accompanying the Act that established the NDA, the new body will also have a duty to promote and maintain a skilled nuclear workforce, promote effective competitive contracts, safeguard the environment and public health, and preserve nuclear security.

It is possible to view all these provisions as the necessary foundations for a new nuclear era. Without some of them, such as the requirement to maintain a skilled workforce, a rejuvenated nuclear power industry will soon become a practical impossibility. The Act also establishes a new structure for the industry, which does not exist at present. It is envisaged that the current site licensee companies (SLCs) shall remain as the site licensees. Bids will be made by them for funding to decommission particular reactors and the NDA will in effect control the order in which decommissioning projects are tackled. The Authority is currently working on a list of priorities, and its first programme of work will go out for consultation towards the end of this month.

The industry is very keen that the NDA should begin by funding those projects that offer the possibility of an early success story. The UKAEA is hoping that its proposal for the decommissioning of Pile One at Windscale will be at the top of that list.

In 1957 Pile One suffered the UK’s worst nuclear accident, which was second only to Chernobyl in terms of the radioactive releases to the environment in Europe. Since then the burnt-out remains of the reactor and several tonnes of fuel have remained sealed in the reactor chamber. As such Pile One represented a huge, and unexpunged, black mark on this country’s nuclear record: it has the ‘X-factor’, as one engineer remarked.

Windscale and the Sellafield site in Cumbria have also come to symbolise all that is wrong with nuclear power in the public’s mind. UKAEA engineers, however, revealed to this magazine that recent and more detailed examinations of Pile One have shown that it will be possible to decommission the reactor, and even empty it of fuel and isotopes within 10-12 years.

All this makes Windscale a good candidate for the NDA’s first round of funding, and it is perhaps no accident that the DTI confirmed last December that the corporate headquarters of the NDA will be in west Cumbria.

Commencement of work on the partially destroyed Pile One, which has been mythologised as a nuclear accident waiting to happen, will prove that the nuclear industry has come a long way since the days when most of the UK’s reactors were built. Improvements in technology, combined with a generally less cavalier attitude to safety and the environment, will help to make nuclear power more acceptable.

As Paul Worthington, the UKAEA’s safety manager at Windscale, said: ‘Even with a plant in this condition we can show we can deal with it. This then should add confidence and show that the nuclear industry can get a handle on itself.’

In the background then a positive step has been taken towards the eventual rehabilitation of nuclear power. Meanwhile, in the foreground the likes of Tony Blair and others still argue against nuclear on grounds of cost, a relative factor that is steadily becoming less important.

The real issue to be solved is that of waste. This can be overcome by an efficient NDA and a government prepared to take difficult decisions on issues such as the siting of a deep depository. These are hard choices, but the benefits are far more likely to guarantee Mr Blair the place in history that he so keenly desires than the present debacle in Iraq.

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