THE expected cost of shutting down Britain's atomic power stations and other nuclear facilities at the end of their useful lives is causing alarm among government planners, industry experts, and environmental groups.
A report by an official watchdog group suggests that a final bill of 18 billion British pounds ($28 billion) will have to be met, much of it by the taxpayer.
But the National Audit Office (NAO) cost analysis is under challenge from power-generating companies that want the government to authorize the building of still more nuclear reactors to meet 21st and 22nd century energy needs.
Opponents of nuclear power have entered the argument, too. They want to persuade the government to abandon atomic power as a source of electricity.
Decommissioning the old-style Magnox reactors, which form the backbone of Britain's nuclear power industry but will be obsolete by the end of the century, is a long, complex, and expensive process.
The radioactive rods which fuel them have to be removed and the material in them reprocessed. The stations must be left under guard for 30 to 35 years. The station buildings, clad in thick concrete to prevent radioactive seepage, will have to be left until it is considered safe to demolish them completely.
Much of the argument sparked by the NAO's June 3 report is about how long the decommissioning period should be. The government says a maximum of 100 years, but industry leaders want to spread decommissioning over 150 years. They claim that delay would be cheaper in the long run and would give companies more time to find the cash to pay for closing the facilities.
Patrick Green, an anti-nuclear campaigner for Friends of the Earth, claims the generating companies are demanding a longer time-scale because they want to concentrate on making money instead of meeting what he calls their "historic liability" to end the life of old nuclear plants as quickly as possible.
In the NAO forecast, the cost of shutting down, mothballing, and later dismantling the Atomic Energy Authority's reprocessing plants is put at 3.5 billion British pounds . Decommissioning British Nuclear Fuel's reprocessing facility at Sellafield will cost nearly twice that amount.
NUCLEAR ELECTRIC (NE), Britain's largest generating company, with eight Magnox power stations, seems to be heading for collision with the government over its approach to decommissioning.
The NAO says NE will need to set aside 7 billion British pounds to decommission its aging reactor family. But Doug McRoberts, spokesman for NE, says the true cost to his company will be only 2.8 billion British pounds.
Green, however, contends that NE has not "ring-fenced" the money that will be needed for decommissioning. Instead, he says, it is "relying on the government approving more nuclear power stations, and intends to pay for decommissioning the old ones out of future profits."
At present, British electricity users pay a surcharge on their fuel bills to help create a fund that will eventually be used to pay for decommissioning. The levy produces about 1 billion British pounds a year, but when it ceases in 1998, the total amount available to pay for decommissioning is likely to cover only half the cost.
The rest of the money can come only from nuclear industry profits or from the taxpayer, says Gordon McKerron of the science policy research unit at Sussex University.
Suggestions that Britain should embark on a vigorous nuclear expansion program are fiercely contested by environmental groups and other foes of the nuclear industry.
NE is expected later this year to apply to build a huge 2,600 megawatt twin-reactor station, to be called Sizewell C, on the Suffolk coast. Greenpeace, in company with other anti-nuclear groups, has sworn to oppose the application. A Greenpeace spokesman said: "Instead of throwing good money after bad on new reactors, the government should spend it on decommissioning old plants, and encourage renewable energy schemes and energy conservation."
If the environmental groups' campaign against Sizewell C succeeds, NE executives admit that the new station, if built at all, may begin operating too late to replace the power now generated by Magnox reactors.
The future is further clouded by a government decision last year to conduct a wide-ranging review of Britain's future energy needs. Michael Heseltine, president of the Board of Trade, has said he wants the review to be limited to assessing the market for new nuclear power stations.
But Friends of the Earth say the review should cover all energy sources, and if it does, the case against nuclear power on both environmental and economic grounds would rapidly become obvious.