Nuclear Recycling Faces Environmental Challenge in Britain

THE British government looks ready to allow the largest nuclear-fuels reprocessing plant in Europe to begin handling radioactive material, despite opposition from scientists and environmental groups.

The British pounds2.8 billion ($4.3 billion) Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant (THORP) at Sellafield on the Cumbrian coast is designed to reprocess spent uranium by cleaning it up for re-use. Reprocessing saves having to bury or landfill the spent radioactive fuel, and produces plutonium, the fuel used in fast breeder reactors.

The plant began testing this week, and its owners expect a full operating license to be granted in the fall.

The environmental groups Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth say they are opposed to THORP largely on safety grounds, and Greenpeace says it plans to challenge the decision to begin testing in High Court. Nuclear reprocessing produces emissions of the radioactive gas Krypton 85, and environmentalists claim the gas would increase the electrical conductivity of the atmosphere and cause a higher incidence of some forms of cancer.

In addition, an international group of scientists headed by Dr. Paul Leventhal, president of the Nuclear Control Institute in Washington, D.C., announced that it intends to petition the British government to stop the plant, following a nitrogen oxide gas leak Sept. 7, that forced the evacuation of 300 workers.

Greenpeace also says the world has changed since 1977, when the decision to build THORP was made. At that time Arab oil producers were putting heavy pressure on Western countries by limiting oil supplies, and nuclear energy appeared to be the power source of the future.

Now, however, says Chris Smith, the Labour opposition's environment spokesman, who supports Greenpeace's arguments, there is a world surplus of uranium and the economic attractions of reprocessing nuclear fuel have diminished. Mr. Smith also notes that Britain has canceled its fast breeder reactor program, so there would be no domestic market for THORP's plutonium.

Smith has attacked the decision to allow testing of the THORP plant before the completion of the government's public consultations on the case for and against reprocessing. The government's pollution inspection agency reported last month that 77 percent of responses to the consultation so far had been against granting a license to THORP. But the agency says safety procedures at the plant would ``effectively protect human health, the food chain, and the environment generally.''

The government is likely to let economic factors heavily influence its final decision about THORP.

John Guinness, the chairman of British Nuclear Fuels, which owns the plant, forecasts that THORP, which took 10 years to build, will earn British pounds1 billion for Britain and British pounds1.8 billion for his company in its first decade of operation. He says BNF has orders worth British pounds9 billion for reprocessing spent nuclear fuel from Japan, Germany, and Britain.

BNF argues that mothballing the plant would cost Britain British pounds5 billion through loss of anticipated revenue and in having to make penalty payments to overseas customers. Mr. Guinness says that if THORP is given the go-ahead its activities will support 3,000 jobs in Cumbria and a further 6,000 jobs elsewhere in Britain.

British opponents of THORP have gained backing from overseas scientists.

Frans Berkhout, a researcher at the Center for Energy and Environmental Studies at Princeton University, says a downturn in the world nuclear industry, plus dismantling of US and Russian nuclear arsenals, is producing a large surplus of uranium.

In addition, Japan has reportedly requested that BNF return the reprocessed fuel to Japan at a slower rate, because Japan does not have the storage facilities for the fuel.

That could mean BNF would have to pay for extra storage capacity at Sellafield, or operate THORP at less than full capacity. Either option could reduce BNF's profits significantly.

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