LONDON — BRITAIN is set to consolidate its position as Europe's No. 1 dumping ground for spent nuclear fuel, and the issue is stirring conservation groups to fury. Commercial pressures are largely responsible for a policy which Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is wholeheartedly encouraging. Under a deal worked out between London and Bonn, 4,000 tons of West German nuclear waste will be imported into Britain for reprocessing at a plant at Sellafield in Cumbria, in the north of England, well into the 21st century.
The contract, worth 1.6 billion ($2.6 billion) will extend still further what is already a lucrative, though controversial, money earner for Britain, whose balance of payments is under heavy pressure. After reprocessing is complete, West Germany will receive back refined uranium and plutonium, but Britain will keep most of the other byproducts of reprocessing.
Philip Cade, nuclear spokesman in Britain for Greenpeace, said: ``We are becoming the nuclear dustbin of the world. This agreement is dooming us to having thousands of tons of highly radioactive used fuel transported in and out of the country well into the next century.''
West Germany was to have built its own nuclear reprocessing plant in Bavaria, but canceled the project when political objections were raised. The Bonn government decided instead to invite tenders from France and Britain. British Nuclear Fuels Ltd. is believed to have outbid Cogema, a French reprocessing company, for the contract. Last year BNFL earned 400 million ($640 million) by reprocessing nuclear fuel from West Germany, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Japan. The company believes there are potential customers for its services in up to 30 countries.
Criticism of the Thatcher government's attitude toward nuclear reprocessing on British soil is not confined to conservationist pressure groups like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. In April the House of Commons Select Committee on Energy, which has a Conservative (i.e. ruling party) majority, warned that Britain could be ``saddled forever'' with foreign-produced nuclear waste.
It was referring to contracts signed some years ago with Japan and European countries that did not provide for re-export of treated nuclear waste. The committee also attacked BNFL's plans to fly refined plutonium from Britain to Japan by commercial jumbo jet, because of the security risks involved. Under new reprocessing contracts with foreign countries, Britain now usually insists on a ``send-back clause'' requiring reprocessed high-grade waste to be returned to point of origin. But these clauses do not refer to low- and intermediate-level waste, which will stay in Britain.
The problem of disposing of the steady buildup of nuclear waste in Britain has forced the authorities here to begin surveys of two potential underground dumping sights - one at Sellafield, where some nuclear power stations already operate, the other at Dounreay in the north of Scotland, where the British fast-breeder nuclear reactor was developed.
The announcement that surveys would go ahead in the next two years brought protests from members of Parliament in Scotland and northern England. Winnie Ewing, president of the Scottish National Party, said: ``We will fight every inch of the way.''
In Cumbria the outcry was so great that BNFL decided to launch a publicity campaign to explain and defend the concept of underground nuclear storage. Plans call for huge underground caverns between 650 and 1,640 feet deep. It is calculated that the waste will have to be contained for more than 100,000 years before radioactivity reaches absolutely safe levels. Environmentalists argue that if nuclear waste must be stored, it is better done at ground level where it can be monitored.