|• Faulty reprocessing facility threatens UK atomic plans
• Critics call for plug to be pulled on 'white elephant'
The company that runs the Thorp nuclear reprocessing
plant admitted that it may have to close for a number of years owing to
a series of technical problems.
| The problem involves three evaporator plants
that serve Thorp. The two oldest have been running intermittently following
repeated breakdowns, and the third has been closed after a rise in radioactivity
levels was discovered. Work has started on a new £100m evaporator,
but it is believed to be two years behind schedule and unlikely to open
The latest technical hitches are embarrassing for the government, which hopes to use Sellafield as the centre of a huge British nuclear industry, with the Cumbrian coast expected to host a new enormous waste depository as well as possibly two new nuclear power stations.
Closure could also slow the decommissioning of other nuclear reactors in Britain. Revenue from Thorp was expected to provide much of the £70bn conservatively estimated to be needed to decommission Britain's reactors and clean up the environment after 50 years of nuclear power. Most first-generation UK reactors are expected to have closed within 10 years.
Evidence that drastic action may have to be taken on Thorp has been mounting for months. Recent reviews by Sellafield Ltd have assessed alternative options for the plant's future, including a moratorium on reprocessing and, as a second option, operating it for only part of the year.
Sellafield's problems have been compounded since the Nuclear Inspectorate put a legal limit on the amounts of highly radioactive liquid that can be stored at Sellafield. Yesterday, Sellafield Ltd said that stocks of high-level liquid waste had fallen "significantly" in recent months.
Construction of Thorp began in the 1970s and was completed in 1994. The £1.8bn plant went into operation in 1997 with the assurance from its then owners, British Nuclear Fuels Ltd, that it would reprocess 7,000 tonnes of spent fuel in its first 10 years of operation, two-thirds of the business coming from abroad.
To date, Thorp has completed about 6,000 tonnes of its initial order book and is now, largely as a result of the broken evaporators, limited to processing 200 tonnes a year – about a sixth of its original design capacity.