Nuclear industry plays the environment card in bid to reinvent itself

At the recent British Nuclear Energy Society and British Nuclear Industry Forum Conferences in London, Britain’s nuclear generating companies set out bids to kick start their industry by building new nuclear generating capacity.

In keynote speeches, executives from both companies set out to justify expansion of the stalled nuclear power generating programme. Dr Robin Jeffrey, British Energy’s chairman designate, called upon the UK to begin preparing to build a number of new nuclear power stations. “To have a plant up and running by 2010 we need to start now,” he said. Jeffrey claimed that the success of British Energy’s nuclear growth in North America is the key to the industry’s future success in the UK and provides a model for the nuclear industry’s global future.

Hugh Collum, chairman of BNFL outlined ambitious plans for new nuclear stations. Claiming that Britain could never keep up its targets to cut greenhouse gas emissions without nuclear power, he said that within the next five years critical decisions had to be taken. “Within that time we must make some very fundamental decisions if we want to keep the lights on,” he said.

BNFL believes it’s recent acquisitions of the nuclear businesses of Westinghouse and ABB means it now has both the technology and the sites for the new plants. The technology includes Westinghouse’s AP600 and AP 1000 designs and ABB’s boiling water reactor. The sites include eight magnox sites and the Sellafield (formerly Windscale) complex in Cumbria.

However the vexed question of how to deal with 50 years’ accumulation of nuclear waste currently being stored in concrete bunkers is still no nearer solution. An acrimonious dispute between ministers over whether Britain’s stock of plutonium should be declared a dangerous nuclear waste or regarded as a valuable fuel has led to the repeated postponement of a decision on how to deal with the UK’s unsolved waste problem.

In 1997, as the general election was called, Environment Secretary John Gummer refused planning permission for an undergound laboratory and waste site at Sellafield. The newly elected government deferred the decision, awaiting publication of a House of Lords science and technology inquiry, then commissioning a consultation paper on how to deal with nuclear waste.

The document should have been published last summer. It is known to advocate a change in policy, so that plutonium is no longer considered as a valuable resource, instead being reclassified as dangerous waste.

The proposed launch of the green paper on nuclear waste policy on 8 December was postponed on the orders of Downing Street: Tony Blair’s advisers are concerned about the votes it could cost and want the issue pended until after the election. Environment Minister Michael Meacher has consistently tried to fix a date to publish the paper, believing that to duck the issue is an abdication of responsibility.

The Department of Trade and Industry is still keen to privatise parts of troubled British Nuclear Fuels, and is considering authorising a new generation of nuclear stations to replace the ageing Magnox ones. The department fears its plans will be undermined by a public debate on the unsolved and expensive question of what to do with the increasing mountain of waste.

BNFL is anxious to find a way of dealing with the UK’s 61-tonne stockpile of plutonium, which can be used either as a mixed oxide (mox) fuel or by itself. However, the scandal last year over falsified data at Sellafield has damaged the market for mox fuel and British Energy, the other potential UK customer, believes it is too expensive.

“The nuclear industry’s renewed optimism comes from its opportunistic stance that it has a part in helping to tackling climate change,” commented Director of Friends of the Earth Scotland Kevin Dunion. “They are engaged in what can only be described as environmental ambulance chasing, offering to be a saviour to the victims of climate change.”

‘In this country nuclear power would not be the least cost option and would not deserve yet more Government subsidy. The industry is clearly back to special pleading. Claiming to offer the prospect of helping the Government meet its climate change objectives but only if the Government will reduce the cost to the company of dealing with nuclear waste arising from its operations. Sadly the nuclear industry will have to go a lot further if it is to convince anyone that it is not the hazardous, costly white elephant that we all know it to be.’

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