No change at BNFL
BY ROBBIE MacGABHANN
Seven months have gone by since the disclosure earlier this year of systematic falsification of quality control records at British Nuclear Fuel's Sellafield (BNFL) Mox reprocessing plant, yet nothing has happened to create even the smallest amount of confidence in the British nuclear industry. In fact, the opposite is the case. The nuclear power industry is still unsafe, still badly run and even more economically inviable, especially now that the magnitude of the decommissioning costs of obsolete power stations is becoming more clearly known.
There has been a steady leak of conflicting figures into the media on what costs BNFL faces in shutting down and decommissioning its 11 Magnox plants. It is expected that the company will report its third consecutive year of multi-million pound losses this month. The losses are predicted to be even greater than last year's £62 million figure. Included in this year's losses will be the £40 million compensation paid to Japanese power companies as a result of the data falsification debacle.
Add to this the forced closure of the MOX reprocessing plant, which was supposed to recycle spent nuclear fuel alongside the THORP reprocessing plant and you have a company clearly in trouble.
However, the problems for BNFL do not end there. The company's largest power station sited in Wyfla in Wales, accounting for more than 30% of BNFL's power generating capacity, is out of commission until Christmas because of faulty welds.
BNFL also has to find the money for decommissioning costs, initially estimated to be as high as £29 billion. The cost of paying for the dismantling of power stations has risen because BNFL planned to leave the Magnox power stations mothballed for 135 years. However, now the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate NII) believes that BNFL should only wait 50 years after shutdown before beginning to dismantle the plants.
Three of the Magnox plants first built in the 1950s have already shut down, while the remaining eight will be closed over the next 20 years. BNFL has been changing the presentation of its accounts to minimise its exposure to the decommissioning costs. But even this cannot hide the scale of the expense the company faces. This week, the Financial Times put the decommissioning costs at £34 billion and next week's published accounts are forecast to show the company including a £170 million charge as its first step in facing up to the reality of these costs.
Part of the reason for the increased decommissioning costs stems from a review by BNFL's Liabilities Management Unit. They have found that some of the waste storage silos at Sellafield are leaking. Records for some of the other silos are inaccurate or missing.
One silo has been used as a dump for pieces of radioactive equipment and spent radioactive fuel. Because of this unplanned use, engineers now have to build a new structure around the silo.
Safety at not only BNFL but also throughout the nuclear industry is still an issue. US company Lockheed Martin has been fined $1 million for ``multiple violations of nuclear safety requirements'' at a nuclear weapons plant in Tennessee. The fine was the largest ever levied for a nuclear safety breach in the USA. The breaches were discovered after an explosion at the Tennessee plant injured 11 workers.
Lockheed Martin remains part of the consortium running the British Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) in Berkshire and the British Ministry of Defence has allowed Lockheed Martin to remain in the consortium running the AWE.
So, despite the concerns of the Irish public and the promises of the Fianna Fáil/Progressive Democrat coalition, Sellafield is still open, still leaking, and the British Government are still not facing up to their responsibilities. It is business as usual for BNFL.