What a waste

Published: Tuesday 31 January 1995

READ this carefully and between the lines: "British Nuclear Fuels (BNF) has just lost a multimillion pound German contract for its Thorp reprocessing plant because of pressures from the anti-nuclear lobby."

Effectively, this means that that legendary part of zealous anti-nuclear mythography the world over, the reprocessing plant at Sellafield in northwest England, built over 10 years at a cost of 2.85 billion, has received an environmental kick -- not very painful economically but certainly an affront to the glib efficacy of its hardsell -- in its pants from the anti-nuclear lobby. The only other reprocessing facility in the world is at Cogema in France, which is doing relatively well.

Thorp is yet to start reprocessing but it already has 9 billion worth of standing orders. But BNF's current headache is a killer: the German cancellation is bound to have worldwide repercussions, and it certainly shows that reprocessing may be turning into a far less viable venture than simple underground "direct disposal" for as long as it takes for nuclear material to "cool" and give up its ghost.

The case against reprocessing is that uranium supplies are burgeoning and plutonium has lost its warhead primacy: it has become, in fact, a gigantic environmental liability. Reprocessing plutonium is considered just not worth the effort and the money.

Greenpeace, among other environmental organisations, is happy. Said a spokesperson, "This is the beginning of the end. The government should take advantage of the chance by not starting Thorp up."

This essentially means that nuclear fuel-producing countries can bury their waste cheaply in their own wastelands, circumventing the exorbitant necessity of shipping spent fuel to reprocessing plants thousands of kilometres away.

Reprocessing's single advantage -- and a considerable one at that -- was that it left no residue to dispose off. Burial, on the other hand, will need years of seed time to come into its own and will not answer the question of nuclear waste ticking away quietly underground till Armageddon. The problem with the nuclear industry is that, everything else being equal, it is money saved that counts. And to hell with future safety.

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