Issue 1 - 2023 front

1 September 2005 Edition

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Britain's €80 billion nuclear clean up bill

US subsidises Sellafield owners to build Chinese plants



Nuclear power is having a busy summer. In Britain last week the cabinet was discussing proposals for selling off British Nuclear Group, the nuclear clean up arm of British Nuclear Fuels.

Meanwhile, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) published its first strategy report showing that the cost of decommissioning British nuclear power stations and making dangerous waste safe would be at least £56 billion, up a massive £8 billion on the previous estimate. In July the US Senate sanctioned a $5 billion package of loans and loan guarantees to enable American firms to bid to build nuclear power facilities in China.

George Bush has in recent weeks signed new US energy legislation encouraging reactor development there through tax credits, federal risk insurance and loan guarantees. At the same time the Nuclear Industry Association announced a global shortage of uranium citing only 42 years left of known uranium resources.

The Chinese syndrome

With oil prices set only to increase over the summer months, the knock on effects in world energy markets are increasing. Yes there have been glossy magazines and a lot of news features about bio-fuels, wind, wave and solar energy options but the nuclear power lobby is on the move not just in Europe but in China where the government is planning to spend $50 billion on nuclear energy by 2020, commissioning 30 new nuclear plants.

Front-runners to build these plants are Westinghouse, the US arm of British Nuclear Fuels, who with US Government aid are set to break into the Chinese energy market.

China currently depends on coal for 80% of its electricity, which is unsustainable for an economy in rapid expansion.

Nuclear power accounts for 2.3% of Chinese electricity output now and by 2020 even with the massive expansion from eleven to over 40 reactors it will still only account for 4% of energy produced there.

BNFL's Westinghouse subsidiary stands to gain most from the Chinese nuclear expansion, even though the US House of Representatives voted against the $5 billion package of loans, it has been approved by the US Senate. Westinghouse argue that the Chinese nuclear programme will secure US jobs, at a price of $1 million per job it is deemed a high subsidy.

Tom Coburn a US Senator has criticised the package citing it as, "subsidising the Chinese to take more of our technology". Vermont Congressman Bernie Saunders described the loans as "corporate welfare". Saunders said: "It is patently absurd for the US to provide a loan to the British Government."

Subsidising failure

What Saunders was pointing up is the fact that Westinghouse through BNFL is actually owned by the British Government, who are no strangers themselves to subsidising nuclear power as they face funding an €80 billion clean up bill for Britain's 20 nuclear power and waste sites.

This figure doesn't include the cost of dealing with another 100 tonnes of plutonium and uranium stored in Sellafield for reprocessing in the THORP plant that has been closed since April, after a toxic leak went undetected for months at the plant, which may never re-open again. Dealing with this toxic material will cost at least another £10 billion. THORP is already being subsidised to the tune of £200 million annually.

Last week's NDA report was a damning indictment of BNFL, who had planned to spread the decommissioning process at their sites over 100 years. The NDA has said it must happen over the next 25 years.

The NDA believe that if the decommissioning does not happen over the next two decades future generations might not have the expertise to dismantle these plants. The other reason is that decommissioning will provide continuity of employment for the nuclear industry workers who will be laid off as plants shut down.

Other problems for BNFL came with criticism of what is called "legacy waste". A site in Drigg for low level waste, its just six kilometres from Sellafield, is nearly full, and in danger of leaking because of rising sea levels.

Then there is the issue of the notorious B30 pool of waste where tons of radioactive sludge have been deposited for 50 years, with no records kept of what was actually dumped in the pool. Last year the EU Commission criticised both BNFL and the British Government for their refusal to make clear how and when they would clean up this site.

Now the NDA has taken up the baton. They said that BNFL must produce, "comprehensive, substantiated, full developed and costed plans" for decommissioning not just the B30 pond, where workers cannot spend more than an hour a day near, but the whole Sellafield site. The deadline is the end of September, just over a year since the EU Commission made the same request.

Political decisions

There is one common denominator between the US, China and Britain, it is the role of political leaders. It is US President George Bush's administration who are promoting new nuclear facilities in the US after a 27-year moratorium. It is the Chinese Government that is planning more nuclear power there and it is the British Government who have control over the safe shutdown of Sellafield, THORP, its MOX plant and the safe storage of the waste there. Sellafield currently has 98% of Britain's most deadly waste and more than 59% of the intermediate waste. The Irish Government are once again silent on all of these issues.

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