LAST SEPTEMBER British Nuclear Fuels’ (BNFL’s) reprocessing plant at Sellafield, Cumbria was hit by a major scandal. Safety checks on fuel rods supplied to a Japanese nuclear power plant had been faked. The company’s credibility plummeted as new allegations were made by Swiss and German customers. GEOFF JONES writes.
50 YEARS ago, nuclear power was hailed as Britain’s saviour. Clean, environmentally friendly nuclear power stations were to end the back-breaking toil of coal miners and save importing oil – and at the same time provide electricity so cheaply that it might not be worthwhile metering it. What went wrong?
This latest crisis marks the last step in the terminal decline of Britain’s nuclear power industry. The Japanese, Swiss and German nuclear industries refuse to have anything to do with BNFL, and the Japanese are demanding that BNFL take back the defective fuel rods. This will require armed naval escorts and will cost millions.
BNFL’s new £300 million reprocessing plant stands idle with little chance of the government allowing it to start work. And last month, the company was denied permission to build a nuclear waste incinerator in the United States.
The Irish government is pressing for an immediate closure of the site until it stops pumping radioactive waste into the Irish sea and worries still remain about the long-term effects of low levels of radiation on the plant’s workers.
Nuclear power – child of the nuclear arms race
TO AN extent, the British nuclear power programme was a confidence trick. At the end of World War Two the capitalist powers looked aghast at the strength of the Soviet Union and the revolutionary armies sweeping across China. In their eyes, nuclear weapons were the only way to stop the Red Army.
When President Truman, under the pressure of the US military-industrial complex, decided to keep US nuclear know-how to itself, the only way in which the British government could assert its independence was to develop nuclear weapons of their own.
The first nuclear reactors were built to provide weapons-grade plutonium for bombs. But the revulsion against the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was so great that the programme was kept secret even from the Labour cabinet.
The fact that these nuclear reactors produced heat which could be used to generate electricity, became the public reason for building them. The world’s first commercial nuclear power station, Calder Hall in Cumbria, opened in 1956. It was a converted plutonium factory.
The nuclear reactor programme gathered momentum. Lucrative government contracts were jumped at by the big mechanical and civil engineering contractors. There were several possible designs, and millions were handed out to engineering firms.
But the design and construction of nuclear reactors was complex and needed much higher production standards than British industry was used to. The materials used were difficult and dangerous to handle and the consequences of design failure were much more serious than in a conventional power station.
In 1957, a fire in the core of a reactor at Windscale (now known as Sellafield) released unknown quantities of radioactive Iodine and other gases into the atmosphere. This led to a ban on distribution of milk from an area of 200 square miles around the plant for a month. Today, higher safety standards would mean a ban over a much greater area, for much longer.
Afterwards the government insisted that all subsequent reactors had to be covered by a huge ‘containment’ dome to prevent gases escaping in a similar accident, massively increasing costs. This safety provision was not enforced in other countries, resulting in the fallout from the Chernobyl disaster reaching as far as Britain.
The huge profits expected by the engineering firms did not materialise. Losses forced them to close or amalgamate their construction teams. At the same time, the cost of nuclear power was non-competitive as the cost of oil and gas fell dramatically.
Even as late as the early 1970s, experts were predicting that oil supplies would run out in 20 or 30 years. Supplies were under the control of Middle East states which sometimes could not be held reliably under the thumbs of the major capitalist states. But improvements in geological survey and drilling techniques meant that huge new, apparently inexhaustible, oil and gas fields were discovered across the world in the 1980s and 1990s.
The British nuclear industry contracted. No new nuclear power stations have been commissioned since the late 1980s. When the Tories privatised the energy supply industry in 1988, the cost of electricity from the ageing nuclear stations was so much greater than that from oil or gas stations that the Tories imposed an obligation on electricity providers to buy a certain amount of electricity from non-fossil fuel sources. This was ostensibly to conserve fossil fuels, but actually to ensure that the government didn’t find itself lumbered with unsaleable nuclear power stations which produced electricity too expensive to sell.
BUT, APART from economic considerations and dangers due to accidents, nuclear power stations have one great problem – their waste is radioactive. Nuclear reactors produce large amounts of radiation which makes materials used in the reactor radioactive – from metal ducting down to protective clothing and storage materials.
This so-called ‘low level’ waste cannot be cleaned but has to be stored so that the radioactive components decay naturally – a process which may take centuries. It is estimated that 40,000 cubic metres of such waste are produced by nuclear reactors every year in Britain, a large quantity to handle and dispose of safely.
More difficult to deal with are the waste products of the nuclear reaction itself. Spent fuel rods or pellets still contain large quantities of highly dangerous material such as plutonium. Reprocessing separates out reusable uranium and plutonium from other unusable wastes.
The uranium is converted back into fuel; plutonium is stored either for use in a different form of reactor or as material for nuclear weapons. Reprocessing seemed a good idea because it enabled the British government to be independent of US control of uranium supply. Then it was marketed as a commercial solution to problems of other countries’ nuclear industry – getting paid for becoming the world’s nuclear dustbin.
Now the commercial rationale has disappeared as other countries are cutting nuclear power programmes. As far as world capitalism is concerned, nuclear energy is a dead end and has been shown to be expensive and dangerous.
For British capitalism, nuclear power generation and the reprocessing of radioactive waste have become an expensive irrelevance. The oldest nuclear power plants are being quietly closed down. For example, the reactor at Bradwell in Essex is to close in March 2002 with the loss of up to 150 jobs.
At the same time, accidents at the ageing power stations receive a disproportionate amount of publicity. The latest was at Trawsfynydd, North Wales, on 2 May when there was a fire in the old reactor building.
BNFL stated that there were ‘no radioactive implications’, but after Sellafield people are less likely to trust them. The nuclear industry is an embarrassment to New Labour, not least because many members of the government spent their youth campaigning against it!
A Socialist energy policy
ACCESS FOR all to cheap energy is a must for any socialist plan. The supply of fossil fuels is not inexhaustible. As supplies get shorter, capitalist firms will be quite happy to allow ‘rationing by price’, but that is not an option for socialists.
A first obvious step is to take back into public ownership the electricity and gas industries. There should only be compensation on the basis of proven need for the greedy multinationals who picked them up for peanuts from the Tory government.
A socialist energy policy will have to plan sustainable energy production, using present technologies. It will be developed under democratic working-class control and will require major investment in energy saving, such as house insulation. But it will also need an immediate investment in new, renewable, sources of energy.
The present wind and hydroelectric projects represent a fraction of what is possible, even with present technology. What nuclear power stations remain will be phased out as quickly as possible and the reprocessing of nuclear materials ended immediately. The skills of workers in the nuclear industry will be required for many years to close down and make these units safe. As this work tails off, workers can be re-trained to produce socially useful products.
But such an energy policy has an international perspective. Quite rightly, people of the Third World demand the right to cheap energy, a right denied them by global capitalism. They see attempts to cut the increase in fossil fuel usage in the name of slowing global warming as an attempt by the rich to hang onto what they have at the expense of the poor.
A socialist energy policy would have to be international, ensuring that supplies of energy from renewable sources such as hydroelectricity and possibly more advanced sorts of nuclear reactors are distributed world wide.
How a nuclear reactor works
SOME HEAVY elements, notably Uranium, are unstable. In a lump of uranium, some of the atoms will split, producing lighter elements but also giving out particles known as neutrons and energy in the form of heat. The neutrons can hit other Uranium atoms and cause them to split in their turn.
Uranium occurs naturally in two varieties, known as isotopes. One isotope, Uranium 235, is more unstable than the other. In a block containing a high proportion of this isotope, the neutrons can produce a chain reaction, with more and more atoms splitting and giving out energy. In special circumstances this leads to an explosion.
If the Uranium is in the form of pellets or rods in a block of some material which absorbs neutrons (known as a moderator), the chain reaction can be made to proceed slowly and controllably. The block heats up but this heat is conducted away like in a car’s cooling system. This heat can be used to drive turbines to produce electric energy. The first British reactors used gases as coolants but more modern reactors use a liquid, usually water.
If something happens to the moderator, the chain reaction may run too fast, producing excessive heat which melts the structure – this is what happened at Windscale and Chernobyl. The reactor core can catch fire, releasing radioactive gases into the environment. But the shape and size of the fuel elements is also critical. Hot spots might occur which could produce the same disastrous result. This is why BNFL’s customers went ballistic at finding safety checks hadn’t been carried out.
Sellafield’s chequered history
1951 Nuclear reactors built at Windscale to make plutonium for nuclear weapons.
1957 Nuclear reactor fire spreads radioactive gases over western Britain.
1971 Name changed from Windscale to Sellafield.
1981 Following a series of leaks of radioactive material, Health and safety Executive (HSE) reported, “Safety standards had deteriorated to an unsatisfactory level.”
1986 Four leaks and a fire in three months. HSE highlighted “insufficiently thorough” attitude to safety.
1988-1990 reports find possible effects of Sellafield on childhood leukaemias in the area.
1999-2000 Damning HSE report on safety standards.
2000 Irish government demands Sellafield’s closure.