SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

The nuclear danger

ON 11 SEPTEMBER, the day of the terrorist attacks in the US, the Financial Times coincidentally carried an editorial arguing that Tony Blair should approve the opening of a long-disputed mixed-oxide (Mox) nuclear processing plant at Sellafield. The Mox plant, built as an attachment to the Thorp reprocessing plant, will take plutonium and uranium from spent nuclear fuel and make it into new fuel pellets for reactors.

A former nuclear weapons specialist at Aldermaston, Dr Frank Barnaby, stated last May that running the new plant would ‘make it virtually inevitable that terrorists will acquire the plutonium they want from the fuel, and make nuclear weapons with it’. They could intercept it while it is being shipped around the world, and it would not be ‘technically demanding’ to convert it into nuclear bombs which could be used with devastating effect. He declared that ‘a second-year undergraduate’ would be able to do it. Other reports – including those by the Royal Society (a British scientific body) and the US government’s Office of Arms Control and Non-proliferation – have pointed out the ease with which terrorists could make plutonium-based bombs.

Blair, in whipping up support for British involvement in the US military retaliation following 11 September, also warned that terrorists would make nuclear bombs ‘if they could’. Despite his own warning, as well as those of others, he proceeded to follow the advice of the top financiers and took the decision, on 3 October, to allow the Mox plant to go ahead. This decision follows five ‘consultations’ over the licensing of the plant since it was built in 1996. The government justified the decision by saying that the Office for Civilian Nuclear Security has declared there to be no risk attached to the new plant. But this ‘security’ body is financed by the government’s Department of Trade and Industry, the same department that owns and controls British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL) which, in turn, runs the Sellafield nuclear complex.

In Ireland there is great anger about the radioactive material that is pumped from Sellafield into the Irish Sea and fear of the consequences of a nuclear accident or terrorist attack on Sellafield. Reflecting this, Irish energy minister, Joe Jacob, described Blair’s decision as ‘incomprehensible’. He said that his government will exploit ‘every legal avenue’ to try to stop it. Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace are also considering legal action, using European Union or United Nations laws or conventions. Under European law, the plant has to be economically viable to justify its radioactive discharges. Challenges are being made on this issue because BNFL has only managed to obtain orders from Germany and Switzerland for Mox fuel, orders that would require just 40% of the plant’s capacity.

The biggest generator of nuclear energy in Britain, privatised British Energy, has refused to use Mox fuel. Japan had been lined up as a key buyer, but pulled out in 1999 when it was revealed that BNFL had forged quality control records for early versions of the fuel.

BNFL has been accused of using ‘voodoo economics’, because in forecasting that the Mox plant would make a profit of £216 million over ten years, it disregarded the £470 million spent on building the plant! Even the above quoted Financial Times editorial pointed out that reprocessing is expensive, risky to the environment, unpopular, and that plentiful supplies of uranium make reprocessed fuel unattractive (mined uranium is cheaper than reprocessed uranium). But it ended up by concluding that more money would be lost by mothballing the plant than by operating it.

The government argues that the nuclear industry as a whole is important for environmental reasons, as no greenhouse gases are produced. But no safe means of disposing of nuclear waste has ever been developed, so future generations are being handed the burden of radioactive waste which will last for over 100,000 years. A government document, Managing Radioactive Waste Safely, which was held back for over a year, was finally released on 12 September, the day after the US terrorist attacks! This was a desperate attempt to hide the devastating nature of the waste problem, along with government incompetence and vested interests. The document says that there is so much plutonium and uranium in storage that it is not possible to safely and economically adapt enough reactors to burn it. Despite the scale of the problem, BNFL is continually producing more uranium and plutonium, and insists on calling these highly dangerous wastes ‘assets’ rather than liabilities.

In addition to the risk of terrorists grabbing plutonium, there is the new realisation that if an aeroplane was flown into a nuclear plant, the resulting disaster would be at least on the scale of the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe in Ukraine in 1986. The reprocessing plants at Sellafield and Cap de la Hague would be particular targets, because they are the only reprocessing plants in Europe outside of Russia, and contain huge tanks of highly radioactive material that is not even partially protected by concrete shields as it is in reactors. Since 11 September, attention has also been drawn to the danger of nuclear waste being transported from nuclear power stations around Britain to Sellafield. Up to 200 trains each year carry nuclear waste through central London!

The government was planning to privatise 49% of BNFL. However, this has been postponed due to BNFL’s severe financial problems (a loss of £210 million last year) and concerns over the Mox plant. In addition, the government will face increased public alarm over this privatisation due both to fear of terrorism and experience of safety standards in the privatised rail industry.

British Energy is currently trying to off-load a £3 billion bill for nuclear waste disposal onto the tax payer, leaving working-class people to face the bill for the corporation’s long-term liabilities and investments. BNFL is trying to off-load these costs before part-privatisation has even occurred by requesting that £60 billion of its liabilities are split off into a separate company which would remain in the public sector!

Nuclear energy is not cheap. Natural gas is presently the cheapest form of energy and coal is forecast to be cheaper than nuclear energy. The government’s own energy review team estimated that by 2020, nuclear power will remain more expensive than even wind generation. However, with the knowledge that all but one of Britain’s nuclear power stations are due to close by 2023, BNFL wants the government to agree to the construction of 20 new nuclear stations during the next 20 years. As well as claiming that nuclear energy is environmentally friendly, BNFL has resorted to arguing that uranium comes from ‘stable’ countries such as Australia and Canada, whereas gas is supplied by ‘unstable’ areas of the world, such as Russia and North Africa. New Labour declared in its 1997 election manifesto that there was no case for new reactors. This was withdrawn in the 2001 manifesto and, unannounced, the government is now participating in a US-led global project on the building of new nuclear power stations. Blair appointed a pro-nuclear energy minister and, although Blair told parliament that an expansion of nuclear power is not on his agenda, he said nothing about the replacement of old stations by new ones.

The part-privatisation of BNFL and the building of new nuclear reactors must be vigorously opposed. Aside from the threat of terrorism, the constant risk of a catastrophic accident and the short- and long-term dangers posed by nuclear waste make nuclear power an unacceptable energy source in its present form. Socialists must also argue for immediate decommissioning of existing plants. This would not mean the loss of workers' jobs in the industry as they would be needed for many years in work associated with decommissioning, and could then be transferred to much safer means of energy production.

Judy Beishon


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