Unless the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior and the other members of
a small armada of vessels succeed in stopping them, the Pacific Teal and
Pacific Pintail will safely dock this morning at Barrow-in-Furness. The
eco-friendly naming of those ships belies their cargoes: five tons of nuclear
fuel from Japan, en route to the British Nuclear Fuels facility at Sellafield.
The fact that the material, originally from Sellafield, was rejected by the
Japanese when it was discovered that safety records at BNFL had been falsified,
should only heighten BNFL"s embarrassment. But no. The complacency and arrogance
that has characterized the British nuclear establishment shines through: "We've
been carrying out these kind of radioactive transports for 30 years in complete
safety and security." That may be true, but it does not mean that those transports
are desirable, or that they are a risk worth taking in an age of globalized terror.
Indeed, it may not be too much to claim that the viability of the whole nuclear
industry, never very great, has been virtually destroyed by the events of 11 September.
We have heard few assurances that our nuclear installations are, or could be,
protected against a Jumbo jet full of fuel crashing into them. How would British
Energy, virtually bust as it is, pay for such safety measures?
It is certainly relevant to note that so much of the current anxiety about
Saddam Hussein's Iraq and other 'rogue states" stems from the ease with which
they can obtain weapons-grade nuclear material, a situation that the British enthusiasm
for international trade in radioactive material can only make worse. These are
matters that must be given a proper airing in the Government's forthcoming white
paper on energy policy. Given Downing Street's reputed enthusiasm for all things
nuclear, however, that will probably prove to be a vain hope.
But the immediate question remains the international trade in this particular
material mixed uranium and plutonium oxide fuel, or Mox. The central argument
against the Mox reprocessing facility at Sellafield is that, even ignoring for
a moment safety concerns, it is wildly uneconomic. Mox comes in the form of inch-long
ceramic pellets that are slotted into stainless steel rods, which are loaded into
a nuclear reactor. An alternative fuel, however, is uranium, which is now much
cheaper than it was when the decision to build the Mox plant was taken.
Moreover, the £150m that the Sellafield Mox plant is expected to earn
over its life will not cover the £473m cost of building the plant, a state-of-the-art
operation where lasers and computers control the making of Mox fuel rods from
reprocessed nuclear fuel. Nor do the profits take into account the enormous costs
of decommissioning the contaminated components of the Mox plant when its working
life comes to an end within the next 20 years.
The last consultation on the project, by the accountants Arthur D Little, concluded
that "there is a robust economic case for proceeding with the Sellafield Mox plant"
but only by leaving aside the costs of building the plant in its financial
The truth, of course, is that the British nuclear program is supported mainly
because of its military importance and because it offers a superficially easy
way to cut carbon dioxide emissions. Neither argument is remotely compelling if
the effects of a serious accident or terrorist action are taken into account.
Nuclear power is unsafe, at any price.
© 2002 lndependent Digital (UK) Ltd