You are here

Full steam ahead for UK's nuclear industry "Titanic"

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

(December 7, 2001) The UK's response to critics of the Sellafield MOX Plant, aging nuclear reactors and plans for new reactors is becoming apparent. Following revelations that BNFL is technically bankrupt, the government announced that a new Liabilities Management Authority is to take over its liabilities, including Sellafield and the Magnox reactors. Critics who divulge details of nuclear security, nuclear transports or uranium enrichment will risk up to 7 years in jail under a new law. In short, it is full steam ahead for this Titanic of an industry, and the question is, which iceberg will it hit first...

(559.5347) WISE Amsterdam - Faced with revelations that one of its leading players is bankrupt, with installations described as the most dangerous in Western Europe which enable terrorists to hold the world to ransom, any normal industry would be on its knees. However, the UK's nuclear industry is not a normal industry.

Liabilities Management Authority
An internal review of BNFL's waste management strategy indicated that existing intermediate-level waste urgently needs to be removed from its existing, aging storage, and must be treated and re-packaged. However, as soon as BNFL endorsed this new strategy on 28 November, its liabilities rose by 1.9 billion pounds (US$2.65 billion), making the company technically bankrupt since its liabilities now exceed its assets by 1.7 billion pounds (US$2.37 billion).

It was soon clear that state-owned BNFL would not simply be allowed to go bankrupt, as might happen to a private-sector utility. The same day, Patricia Hewitt, Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, announced that a Liabilities Management Authority (LMA) is to take over the liabilities of both BNFL and the UK Atomic Energy Authority.

Because of the principle that assets and their associated liabilities should be kept together, the new authority will take over entire sites such as Sellafield and the Magnox reactors. The management of these sites will then be contracted out. The previous site owners (BNFL or UKAEA) will initially get the contracts to manage the sites and the clean-up operations.

Sellafield MOX Plant
One of the installations to be transferred to the LMA is the Sellafield MOX Plant. This means that the same installation whose start-up the Government considered "justified" on 3 October (see WISE News Communique 555.5319, "UK: Sellafield MOX Plant gets go-ahead") will now be taken away from BNFL as a "liability"! Patricia Hewitt explained that "it is important that Sellafield continues to be managed as a single, unified site". Nevertheless, it seems crazy that the Government considers the start-up to be economically justified as required under Article 6 of Euratom directive 96/29, and yet includes the plant amongst BNFL's liabilities.

Meanwhile, the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea has given its ruling in the case that the Irish government brought against the UK (see WISE News Communique 557.5338, "Irish challenges to Sellafield MOX Plant"). The UK government wanted to stop proceedings by claiming that the matter was outside the tribunal's jurisdiction. The judges unanimously rejected this argument, saying that the dispute is valid under UN rules. Hearings will therefore go ahead, and are expected to begin in early 2002.

The Irish government had requested that the tribunal issue "provisional measures" - a form of injunction - to prevent the plant starting up and stop any related transports by ship. The tribunal refused to do this. Instead, they ordered the UK and Ireland to negotiate over the matter and report back to the tribunal by 17 December. In the meantime, they called upon the countries to do nothing "which might aggravate the dispute". BNFL interpreted this as meaning that they can still start the MOX plant on 20 December as planned, though Greenpeace disagrees.

Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace have appealed against the High Court's 15 November ruling in favor of the UK government (see WISE News Communique 558, "In Brief"). The appeal court's judgement is expected on 7 December, just after this News Communique goes to press.

Sellafield also succeeded in uniting all factions in Northern Ireland, where a 4 December motion in the Northern Ireland Assembly calling for the closure of the entire Sellafield site was passed unanimously. Northern Ireland's environment minister, Sam Foster, said the UK government had not consulted him on the decision to press ahead with the MOX plant.

Magnox: dangerous and uneconomic
The Liabilities Management Authority is also to take over the Magnox nuclear power plants. Greenpeace described these reactors as the oldest operating commercial reactors in the world. However, their economic performance is so bad that it is questionable whether they deserve to be called "commercial". This is mainly because of the huge quantities of nuclear waste they produce. This waste is reprocessed in Sellafield's B205 Magnox plant, which is responsible for a large proportion of Sellafield's radioactive discharges into the Irish Sea.

In a 1999 report, the Austrian Ecology Institute ranked the Magnox reactors as the most dangerous reactors in Western Europe. This recently caused controversy since they ranked these reactors more dangerous than Temelin. The report used a very basic ratings system, and Magnox reactors scored badly because of their age and lack of a containment building. (See also Section 4.2, "Whose safety standards?" in WISE News Communique 493/4, "Agenda 2000: Will it increase nuclear safety in Eastern Europe?)

A recent example of the problems of these old reactors was a recent report on Oldbury, which was leaked to the BBC. Oldbury has several problems, including severe radiolytic corrosion of the graphite core (see WISE News Communique 543.5246, " Implications of BNFL abandoning Magrox fuel"). However according to the BBC, the leaked report went one stage further, saying some parts of the core may have already failed. If this is true, cooling channels might be blocked, preventing control rods from shutting the reactor down in an emergency (see WISE News Communique 539.5224, " Wylfa - BNFL deny plan to use 'glowboys'".)

Using "anti-terrorist" measures to suppress protest
The terrorist attacks of 11 September have increased still further the risk of nuclear installations, but they also give a convenient excuse to suppress protest. The UK's Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Bill proposes a jail term of up to 7 years for anyone who discloses information which might "prejudice the security of any nuclear site or any nuclear material". This includes not just nuclear sites and material in the UK, but also "nuclear material anywhere in the world which is being transported to or from a nuclear site or on board a British ship".

Greenpeace UK said they were willing to risk imprisonment to keep the public informed about the dangers of nuclear waste transport, and published timetables of UK nuclear waste trains on their web site. The web site also includes a "nuclear ship spotter's guide" with photos of BNFL ships used for nuclear transports.

Under the proposed legislation, disclosing any information about uranium enrichment, or "any information or thing which is, or is likely to be, used in connection with the enrichment of uranium" may also result in up to 7 years in jail. Pakistan obtained uranium enrichment technology from Urenco Netherlands by means of espionage, and Iraq obtained uranium enrichment equipment from Urenco Germany by theft and smuggling (see WISE News Communique 499/500.4932, "Uranium enrichment: No capacity growth in 20 years"). Clearly the UK government intends to prevent a similar incident at Urenco's UK plant at Capenhurst - a plant that, coincidentally, is also to be taken over by the Liabilities Management Authority.

Which iceberg will the nuclear "Titanic" hit first?
Despite all these problems - huge liabilities, dangerous, uneconomic installations, and new security fears following 11 September - the UK nuclear industry continues full steam ahead. Plans for building new reactors (see WISE News Communique 553.5305, "UK: Energy review to be pre-empted by Scottish reactor plan?") have certainly not been scrapped in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks. The question is, which iceberg will this nuclear "Titanic" hit first: a major accident, a terrorist attack, or a government that is responsible enough to refuse yet another request for a financial bailout. We can only hope that it is the last of these three.


  • Hansard, 28 November 2001
  • Web site
  • ENS, 4 December 2001
  • BBC, 27 and 28 November and 4 December 2001
  • Österreichisches Ökologie Institut, press release 28 November 2001
  • Greenpeace UK press release, 19 November 2001
  • Reuters, 6 December 2001

Contact: WISE Amsterdam