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Can We Learn From Nuclear Experiments Elsewhere?

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The provincial government is promoting an expansion of the nuclear industry as an economic ("valueadded") strategy. It's too bad it hasn't taken time to study what has happened elsewhere before jumping on the nuclear industry bandwagon. The Uranium Development Partnership (UDP) even recommended that Saskatchewan offer itself as a site for nuclear wastes from nuclear power plants elsewhere, and undertake research on reprocessing this spent fuel. It concluded that "a Saskatchewan-based reprocessing facility may have substantial local and regional economic benefits" in part because "plutonium…has significant value as a fuel for nuclear reactors when refabricated into mixed oxide (MOX) fuel bundles" (p. 69).

There's a lot to learn about this from where it has already been tried? In the 1950s, at Windscale, England, plutonium was produced for Britain's nuclear weapons. Windscale became the site of the world's first commercial nuclear power plant in 1956 and of the world's first major reactor accident, a reactor fire, in 1957. Renamed Sellafield as part of a facelift, it now also has two nuclear reprocessing plants. Radioactive contamination of the North Sea has been ongoing.

In the 1990s an additional plant was proposed to produce MOX fuel, a combination of plutonium retrieved from reprocessing nuclear wastes, and uranium, and to sell this as a "recycled" fuel for nuclear plants abroad. Because of the costs, and dangers that reprocessed fuel presents for nuclear proliferation, the Sellafield MOX Plant (SMP) was immediately opposed by peace and environmental groups. In 2002 Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth took the British government to court to try to stop the plan. With its misguided and hugely expensive love affair with nuclear power, Tony Blair's Labour Party forged ahead on the pretense of being able to profit from a nuclear fuel market facing shortages of uranium.

Problems started right away. In 1999 it was revealed that quality control data on the MOX fuel was secretly being falsified. Britain's main MOX customer, Japan, scaled down its purchases. When the plant opened in 2001 it only had 10% of the business that was forecast, and was plagued by problems producing the fuel assemblies. The Labour government continued to promote "recycled" nuclear waste as part of a "nuclear renaissance" even though, by 2004, there were clear signs that this experiment was to be an economic and environmental disaster.

British Nuclear Fuels (BNF) claimed the plant would produce 120 tons of MOX a year. Due to technical problems and the dearth of orders it only produced 5.3 tons in the first five years. BNF claimed the MOX plant would make net earnings of 216 million pounds over its lifetime, but due to unproven technology, exorbitant construction and commissioning costs, which have exceeded 1 billion pounds, the British taxpayers pays 90 million pounds a year to keep the plant operating. It's one of the nuclear industry's most embarrassing white elephants and one of the greatest failures in all of British industrial history. The taxpayer will now have to foot the bill to decommission this nuclear white elephant.

It may seem puzzling that British politicians swallowed hook, line and sinker the make-believe financial forecasts of the nuclear industry. But the same thing is happening in Saskatchewan. NDP mandarins have been fantasizing Saskatchewan becoming a nuclear "have province" since Allan Blakeney became Premier in the 1970s; and the Sask Party has also taken up the tarnished nuclear gauntlet.

Governments ought to have to do their homework to check nuclear promotions against reality, where experiments have been tried and failed in places like Sellafield. If governments fail to do this, to protect the public interest, then the mainstream press should be seriously investigating these matters. Unfortunately, this isn't happening, though thankfully a new generation of hands-on researchers is beginning to use the internet to compensate for these failings. They are finding that things nuclear being promoted as avant-guard in Saskatchewan have already failed miserably elsewhere. Luckily the larger public is beginning to catch on.