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Nuclear: when one white elephant collapses, build another

nuclear powerIt is almost incredible, but true, that the Government can build a MOX (mixed oxide) plant at Sellafield costing £1.5bn which lamentably and comprehensively fails to meet its manufacturing targets and therefore has to be closed down, yet then is determined against all the odds to build another one at a cost of £2-3bn.

These were criticisms which I and many other critics on the outside levelled against the MOX scheme, but which both ministers and the nuclear industry ignored and belittled. However an FOI request last month has now uncovered that the BIS Department and its ministers privately agreed with our assessment of the high cost, low efficiency and poor effectiveness of the plant. This internal official assessment confirmed that the projected annual throughput was 120te, but SMP (the Sellafield Mox plant) actually manufactured just 13.8te of MOX fuelthroughout its whole 11-year operating life.

We were assured that the original MOX plant was well designed and had a profitable future ahead of it. The government now admits, through the FOI, that “SMP had very significant gaps both in its design and operating capability. This meant that the plant as built was not fit for purposeand struggled from the start with a wide range of operational problems”. The real official assessment went on to say that “the SMP culture (as part of the Sellafield site) was not well suitedto a precision manufacturing facility and for much of its operating lifethere was an unwillingnessto face up to the scale of the problems facing the plant”.

Moreover the projected future profits turned out to be fantasy. The FOI documents noted that “the original SMP business plan projected an NPV of £400m from the project. In fact the costs of the plant very significantly exceeded the revenues earned” – i.e. it made huge losses. Worse, the original projected costs of construction were hugely under-estimated: “the capital and operating costs of SMP through to its closure in 2011-12we £1.47bn. Within this, capital costs through to the operational phase of commissioning at the end of 2001-2 were £484m, compared with BNFL Board approval in June 1993 of just £280m”.

Only FOI revealed the real costs of the plant. “The total net costs of the plant, including losses on sub-contracts, are projected to be £1.42bn. In addition to this, the future costs of cleaning out and decommissioning the plant are estimated at £0.8bn, giving an aggregate net total loss for the full plant life-cycle of around £2.2bn. So what is the government’s response to this disastrous failure?

The official response to the consultation on the long-term management of UK-owned separated civil plutonium stated that: “The UK government is satisfied that lessons learned from the Sellafield MOX plkant can be applied to a new MOX plant and that overseas experience gives confidence that any new MOX plant will be successful”.

Well, that’s all right then. We’re so lucky we can trust them!

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