British Close Controversial Nuclear Plant at Astronomical Cost

Commercial and safety issues lead to a shutdown that could take 100 years and cost $1.65 billion.

Britain is learning the hard way that nuclear installations are hard to get rid of - and that they can trigger conflict with otherwise friendly neighbors.

After ordering the closure of a pioneering fast-breeder reactor Friday at Dounreay, on the northern coast of Scotland, Prime Minister Tony Blair heard from his scientific advisers that it will take a century and cost about 1 billion ($1.65 billion) to do the job.

Meanwhile, Norway, with support from Sweden and the Irish Republic, is set to demand an immediate halt to all nuclear operations at Dounreay and at a much larger reprocessing complex at Sellafield, opposite the Irish coast, because of a rising threat of polluting the North Sea.

At a meeting this week in London, Gro Fjellanger, Norway's environment minister, is expected to tell the 14-member Oslo-Paris Commission on sea pollution that radioactive discharges into the North Sea already threaten to contaminate the Norwegian coastline.

Mr. Blair will also face demands that the Sellafield nuclear-reprocessing plant should be closed. Peter Melchett, executive director of the environmental pressure group Greenpeace, said Saturday: "All the factors that condemned Dounreay also stack up against Sellafield."

Blair's decision to shut down Dounreay came three weeks after he agreed to a request from President Clinton that the plant reprocess about 10 pounds of fissile material from the former Soviet republic of Georgia.

That decision, made in secret, opened a controversy when it surfaced in the United States. Opposition politicians in Britain said the public should have been told. The aim in accepting the highly enriched uranium and spent nuclear fuel, Blair said, was to keep it out of the hands of terrorists or countries trying to build nuclear bombs.

Nuclear power was once seen as a source of inexpensive and inexhaustible energy. But today governments around the world are facing the complex and expensive task of closing down, or "decommissioning," facilities that have become dangerous and expensive to operate. Sweden wants to close all 12 of its nuclear plants. Russia has permanently shut four of its large commercial reactors. Based on a design life of 30 years, the rest should be decommission by 2020, though new reactors may be built to replace them. The US has 108 nuclear plants and no more are likely to be built, while many face costly decommissioning in the next few years.

The decision to shut Dounreay writes an ignominious end to what was seen when it opened in 1957 as a highly promising bid to produce cheap electricity using a controversial form of nuclear fission. But after a series of accidents at Dounreay, and amid reports that enough weapons-grade uranium to make a dozen nuclear bombs had unaccountably disappeared from the site, Blair and his ministers are being accused of incompetence.

Blair told the House of Commons last week that the uranium had "never existed," and that there had been an accounting error. But the government's opponents pounced on his remarks. "The government's nuclear policy is a shambles," says John Redwood, Conservative opposition energy spokesman. "A huge amount of taxpayers' money will be wasted because of the way Dounreay is being shut down."

In fact, Blair is having to come to terms with what Roy Nelson, Dounreay's director, concedes is "the huge difficulty of winding down a major nuclear facility." Attempts to generate electricity at Dounreay ended in the mid-1990s, but the facility is still under contract to reprocess material from several countries. That work, including the fuel from Georgia, will have to be completed.

Before that can happen, however, nuclear experts say between 30 million and 60 million will have to be spent upgrading the plant, following complaints by British health and safety officials that existing equipment is potentially dangerous.

Also, the government faces a complex, time-consuming, and ferociously expensive operation needed to wind down and shut the site completely. It must:

* Decommission a small demonstration fast reactor shut down in 1977.

* Decommission a Phase 2 prototype that ceased operation in 1994, together with 15 tons of irradiated reactor fuel.

* Remove 700 cubic yards of nuclear waste from a 200-foot disposal shaft sealed in 1977 after a chemical explosion.

* Decontaminate a stretch of shoreline close to the Dounreay site and clean up 1,500 "hot spots" on dry land.

The entire process, Nelson admits, will take about 100 years. Managers at the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority are said to have told Blair the cost of closing Dounreay will be around 1 billion.

The decision to shut down, says Energy Minister John Battle, was taken "purely on commercial grounds." In the last two decades, however, Dounreay has been the scene of a series of dangerous mishaps. Last month, Britain's Nuclear Installations Inspectorate ordered closure of the fuel-cycle area, where reprocessing is done, after a mechanical digger cut an electric cable, causing a 16-hour power failure.

The prototype nuclear reactor at Dounreay has been shut down since 1994 following a radiation leak.

Dounreay's1,600 employees may be the only beneficiaries of the protracted closing. Most of them will probably keep their jobs for many years helping with the shutdown.

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