Friday, 30 May 2008

Too cheap to meter

Electricity. That's what they said all those years ago, and our politicians still appear to cling to the forlorn hope that it's true.

The context in which the Government is planning a new round of nuclear power stations is becoming clearer by the day. A succession of shutdowns recently has left British Energy with only six of it's sixteen facilities operating. The loss of Sizewell B meant that large numbers of homes were left without power.

The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority has just reviewed its estimate of the costs involved in cleaning up the UK's current nuclear facilities, and not surprisingly the estimate has increased by a very considerable amount, to £73bn, and admitted that there's a 'high probability' that costs will rise further.

Then there's Sellafield; if it weren't so deadly serious it'd be farcical. It's out of action more often than not, when it is 'reprocessing' it's not doing a very successful job - supposedly reprocessed waste is being returned as unsatisfactory; the Japanese recently sent back a batch of fuel that had falsified quality control documents. So Sellafield, far from making the promised profits, is needing to be propped up to the tune of £3bn a year. Because it's facilities are more often than not out of action, Sellafield is now running out of space for storing nuclear waste. This means that the AGR reactors are facing the possibility of needing to be closed until that problem is resolved.

If there's one thing that's for sure, it is that any nuclear power comes at a high price to the public. Any private company taking on such a project will do the same as we saw recently with the London Underground PPF deal - take the quick profit and then wind itself up when the expenses start to mount. The Government of course will be obliged to step in at that point, as it can scarcely leave nuclear power stations simply to rot.

In the end though the money is almost an irrelevance set against the environmental impact of our nuclear industry. The UK is one of the world's worst for radioactive pollution. Until Chernobyl pushed us into second place, Windscale was the world's principal source of radioactive contamination, and the 1957 fire the worst nuclear disaster. When the then Government responded to the aftermath of that catastrophic incident at Windscale, it was little more than to rename the site Sellafield in the hope that people would forget, and that just about says it all. It trivialises the surreal absurdity of it all to suggest the possibility that consultants would have been paid a very large sum to come up with that suggestion.

It may be that there is a way forward with nuclear power, although I very much doubt it. But the Government cannot continue to build their plans around the impossible dream that Sellafield will work as originally promised. It plainly doesn't and never will.

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