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OSPAR 2000: End to reprocessing at Sellafield and La Hague?

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
#530
26/05/2000
Article

(May 26, 2000) The partners of the OSPAR Convention are meeting in Copenhagen at the end of June. On the agenda is a motion by Denmark to immediately end reprocessing at Sellafield and La Hague. The motion has not gained enough support yet.

(530.5169) WISE Amsterdam - The main decision of the 1998 Ministerial Meeting of the "Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic" (OSPAR Convention) concerning the nuclear industry was to reduce the radioactive discharges from Europe's spent fuel reprocessing industry into the Northeast Atlantic. Sellafield as well as La Hague had been given until the year 2020 to reduce its marine discharges to as "close to zero" as is technically feasible and governments would "work towards" substantial reductions in discharges "by the year 2000".

The stringent OSPAR targets have been seen as the beginning of the end of reprocessing in Sellafield and La Hague. Only one question remains: when will this take place? An Irish move seeking an immediate end to reprocessing at Sellafield has received support among Nordic countries, such as Denmark. Ireland will call for a cessation of reprocessing and associated activities and that, in particular, Sellafield is terminated immediately. Support for the Irish position is likely to increase pressure on the British government in advance of the OSPAR 2000 meeting on June 26-30 in Copenhagen.

Besides Ireland and Denmark, four other countries (Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden) have so far supported the shutdown of Sellafield and La Hague. This number has at least to be doubled. Twelve countries, 3/4 of the 16 member states of OSPAR, have to adopt the motion before it will come into force. According to the OSPAR regulations, France and the UK, however, have the right to veto a motion. But with broad support for the Danish/Irish motion, it will be hard to do so.

In case the proposal will be accepted, the consequences could be far-reaching and positive: an end to the radioactive discharges into the sea; main part of the nuclear transports through the whole Europe and from Japan to the reprocessing plants have to be cancelled; and an end to the enlargment of waste volumes, so far the reprocessing activities caused a multiplication of 20 from the originally delivered waste volumes.

Especially the attitude of the German government is of particular interest. The German delegation at the OSPAR conference is headed by the Minister of Environment Juergen Trittin. It is clear that he will not take any decision, without consulting the German government. Until now Germany has not taken a final decision whether it will support the Danish proposal or not. The government is under pressure, the German electricity companies have billions worth of orders at La Hague as well as at Sellafield. Without the German orders both reprocessing plants could hardly survive. Also, the German nuclear industry welcomes the existence of its foreign nuclear "dustmen". Without the reprocessing plants, it has to store all its spent fuel in Germany. So far around 4,540 metric tons of high-level waste from German NPPs have been sent to La Hague for reprocessing, as well as 650 metric tons to Sellafield. Germany is La Hague's biggest customer and in Sellafield the second one after Japan.

Just as the Germans, the Dutch government has not taken a final decision about supporting the motion. Until now it remains unclear what the Dutch will do. Els de Wit, co-worker from the Ministry of Traffic and Water Management, which is the final responsible department of the Dutch delegation, talks about a "field of tension" in the Dutch debate. At the beginning of June there will be a deliberation among the different departments, with a special task for the Ministry of Environment (VROM), responsible for issues on radioactivity. This will be followed by talks with NGOs. She said that the Dutch position is in line with the strategy which was developed at the OSPAR 1998 meeting, i.e. to reduce discharges to as close to zero by 2020.

In parliament, Energy spokesman Jelle Feenstra from the social-democratic party (PvdA) tends to agree with the Danish and Irish demands to end reprocessing. Marijke Augusteijn from the liberal democrats (D66) thinks there is at present no alternative to sending spent fuel to the reprocessing plants. During a recent deliberation of a parliamentary commission, Minister of Environment Jan Pronk (PvdA) announced the transport of Dodewaard's spent fuel to Sellafield somewhere this fall. Just like a majority in the Dutch parliament, he thinks that the series of problems which harass Sellafield's owner British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL) will be stopped by the renewed board.

The OSPAR Convention was opened for signature in Paris on September 28, 1992. The Convention has been signed and ratified by Belgium, Denmark, the Commission of the European Communities, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, United Kingdom, Luxembourg and Switzerland.

There are more and more signs, even in the world of the nuclear industry, which point in the direction of ending the reprocessing of nuclear waste. Recently BNFL largest customer, British Energy, has called for an immediate end to nuclear reprocessing.

Michael Kirwan, Britain Energy's finance director, said: "As far as we are concerned, reprocessing is an economic nonsense and should stop straight away." The company has contracts worth £4 billion with the beleaguered BNFL, which accounts for around one-third of the base load of the giant Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant (Thorp). British Energy believes that by moving to direct storage of spent fuel costs could be cut by two-thirds.

The loss of British Energy is accompanied by major setbacks for BNFL in the United States. The US Department of Energy (DOE) has terminated a lucrative contract for virtrifying high-level wastes at the Hanford site in Washington State. The decision follows BNFL's plan to more than double its cost estimates for the design, construction and operation of a vitrification plant on the site -- from US$6.9 billion in 1998 to US$15.2 billion this year.

The contract entailed the treatment and immobilization of 55 million gallons (208,000 m3) of liquid high level waste stored in 177 underground tanks. It is the second blow to BNFL in the US in the past few weeks. Having contracted with BNFL to build a waste incinerator at the Idaho Falls site in the Yellowstone National Park, the DOE dropped the plans following public protests (see WISE News Communique 527.5152: "BNFL chairman: 'look at the unthinkable'"). After the MOX falsification scandal and Sellafield safety issues, the loss of US contracts would further cast a shadow over the UK government's plans to partly privatize BNFL.

Sources:

  • N-Base Briefing, 27 July 1998
  • Greenpeace Germany, draft report on OSPAR, May 2000
  • Irish Times, May 10, 2000
  • CORE Briefing, 11 May, 2000
  • Greenpeace International press release, 11 May, 2000

Contact: Greenpeace International, Keizersgracht 174, NL-1016 DW Amsterdam, Netherlands
Tel: +31-20-6261877; Fax: +31-20-6221272
Email: mail@greenpeace.org
WWW: www.greenpeace.org