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  1. Politics
28 February 2000

Sellafield: just close it down

The nuclear industry is kept alive by military and scientific interests

By Ziauddin Sardar

The nuclear industry is in its death throes. The government reports that expose incompetence, “systematic management failures” and corruption at Sellafield, Britain’s biggest nuclear complex, are only the latest in a long list of debacles that have dogged the nuclear industry. It is high time that the industry was put out of its misery.

The three reports on Sellafield by the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate (NII) could not have more comprehensively undermined the expertise, probity and safety of the nuclear industry. The inspectorate found that Sellafield lacked a decent safety management system, devoted insufficient resources to safety and had no independent system for inspection. It also pointed out that workers at the plant had been faking plutonium data since 1996.

In the time-honoured tradition of the nuclear industry, British Nuclear Fuels Limited tried to cover up the fact that its workers were falsifying quality-control data on mixed uranium-plutonium oxide (Mox) fuel. But the cover-ups were bungled. So a few junior employees were sacked. BNFL also tried to limit the damage by saying that fake data did not affect the current shipment of Mox to Japan. Alas, it turned out that the reprocessed fuel shipped back to Japan is suspect. So the company was caught being economical with the truth with a customer who already had ample reasons to be hypersensitive about nuclear safety.

Since BNFL depends on present and future Japanese contracts to make its new reprocessing plant economic, this incident is a disaster, both for its commercial future and for the government’s plans for its privatisation. The nuclear inspectorate has given Sellafield two months to get its act together or face closure.

But Sellafield will never become totally “safe”: nuclear power has an abysmal safety record. Disasters such as those at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Windscale (which has mutated into Sellafield) are etched in public memory. Only last September, an accident at a uranium processing plant in Tokaimura, near Tokyo in Japan, killed three workers and exposed the inhabitants of the town to high doses of radiation. The corruption endemic in the industry multiplies the safety problems at nuclear reprocessing plants. The BNFL fiasco echoes the classic case of Karen Silkwood who worked at a reprocessing plant in Oklahoma. Silkwood, whose story was turned into a film of the same name in 1983, paid with her life for discovering that quality-control records at her plant had been faked. Her dossier of evidence was with her when her car ran off the road, but was never recovered from the wreck.

Silkwood’s family sued Kerr-McGee, the owners of the plant, for millions. They won, but then lost on appeal. The factory was eventually shut down for numerous violations of the safety codes.

Despite these disasters, the nuclear industry continues secure in its presumptive perpetuity. One reason for this presumption is that the industry is seen as delivering more profits than any other established technology. Indeed, the nuclear industry was born in a blaze of euphoria about its cheap and limitless energy – a euphoria that clings to it even though it is neither cheap nor limitless.

Another reason for the industry’s survival lies in its connection with the military. Indeed, the economics of the industry are shaped by political and military imperatives – as shown by the revelation that BNFL has joined the American defence conglomerate, Lockheed Martin, in a consortium to run the top-secret atomic weapons establishment at Aldermaston. Despite this link, nuclear power generation has been presented as a civilian industry; this whitewashing allows for the potential proliferation of nuclear weapons and leads to the faulty logic whereby a peaceful industry that is good for us cannot be denied any other nation.

Nuclear technology also benefits from being at the cutting edge of big science, the darling of enormous vested interests in the scientific establishment. It is both the domain of Nobel prizes and the substance of profitable jobs and careers; and nuclear defence contracts are still the major source of funding for scientific research.

These powerful vested interests explain why there are so many groups willing to work at rehabilitating nuclear energy in the public mind. The most recent one is the American strategic think-tank, Rand Corporation. A recent Rand study declares that nuclear power has been “calculated” to be inherently safe and suggests that nuclear fission is the only way to meet the energy demands of the world.

This is a truly perverse notion of safety. The irreducible problem of the nuclear industry is its garbage. The main function of Sellafield is to reprocess this nuclear garbage – indeed, the site was hailed as the world’s answer to safe disposal and recycling of nuclear waste. But wastes are not tidy things. They are messy, impure, variable, dangerous even when treated, and even more so when left alone.

No doubt the government is rattled by the developments at Sellafield. It may try to take heart because the situation in Britain is not as bad as it is in America. Here we may have the scandals of dumped wastes at Dounreay and faked data at Sellafield; in America they have the “frying squad”, in which casual labourers are sent into the hot sites for minutes at a time.

All the same, Sellafield should raise the alarm: the political and economic arguments for closing it down for good are unanswerable.