MPs question the future of BNFL’s nuclear fuel reprocessing

A cross-party committee of MPs has published findings of its inquiry into the viability of partial privatisation of British Nuclear Fuels Ltd (BNFL), concluding that "reprocessing on the current scale [is] based on a number of false premises".

The Trade and Industry Select Committee report also includes a draft resolution on the future business activities of BNFL that it wishes to see debated in the House of Commons.

“We consider that the time is ripe for a parliamentary debate on BNFL’s future states and prospects,” states the report, which accuses the Department of Trade and Industry of failing to give BNFL the policy framework it requires to make pressing commercial decisions. “We have had the impression that BNFL has been allowed to go its own way for too long, constrained more by regulators and pressure groups than by supervision exercised by Ministers; and that it is only as they come to sell part of the company that a full understanding of its operations is being gained,” states the report

The Select Committee supports the recent decision by Government to delay the introduction of a public-private partnership (PPP) for BNFL (see related story), given the instances of falsification of safety data uncovered last year (see related story). However, the report does not come out against a PPP in the longer term. It cites the views of Nuclear Installations Inspectorate and the Environment Agency, which have both stated that partial privatisation is unlikely to make their regulatory duties significantly different or more difficult.

Anticipating one area of the Select Committee’s conclusions – “BNFL is unlikely to be a significant [electricity] generator beyond the end of the present decade. We recommend that Ministers ensure that BNFL provide in its Corporate Plan a clear vision on the way ahead for Magnox” – BNFL pre-empted the report’s publication by announcing shutdown dates for the ageing Magnox plants. The plants will end electricity generation over the next two decades, beginning with Hinkley Point A, which has been shutdown for a year and will not reopen. Bradwell power station will shut next, in 2002, followed by Dungeness A, Sizewell A, Calder Hall, Chapelcross and, finally, Oldbury and Wyfla.

As the Magnox plants get older safety worries rise, according to Bridget Woodman, nuclear campaigner for Greenpeace UK. “They all have well-documented safety problems which are related to their steel pressure vessels,” Woodman told edie. Steel pressure vessels become brittle over time, and according to Woodman it is brittleness which led to Hinkley Point A being shut down.

Another recommendation from the DTI Select Committee is for BNFL to establish “an independently managed and segregated liabilities fund”.

With the Environment Agency (EA) launching an inquiry today on discharges from BNFL’s Magnox power stations, now may be the time for the relationship between the EA and BNFL to improve. The Select Committee’s report noted that the current relationship is “not as constructive as it should be” and that the EA’s review of its Sellafield authorisations faced “some lack of co-operation”. The EA’s review of Magnox discharges is four years overdue and is part of its standard re-licensing procedure for the stations.

The draft resolution to the House of Commons included in an annex of the Select Committee report contains six subjects for debate. These are:

  • endorsement of a PPP for BNFL in principle, although support for the announced delay in its introduction
  • call for Ministers to ensure that BNFL performs henceforth as though it were subject to partial private ownership, with targets and timescales for all activities
  • request for clarification on the Government’s policy on nuclear fuel reprocessing
  • request for a Government decision on the full commissioning of the Sellafield mixed-oxides fuel re-processing plant
  • call for a liabilities fund and clearer accounting from BNFL as a precondition to a PPP
  • instruction to the Department of Trade and Industry Committee to continue its scrutiny of the proposals for a PPP

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