Select Committee on Environmental Audit Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


ANNEX C

NUCLEAR POWER AND THE ENVIRONMENT

C.1  Decommissioning of nuclear stations

  From the closing of a nuclear reactor to the return of the land on which it stood could well take about 60 years and some evidence suggests 130 years. (Ref 21). An account of the closure and decommissioning of the Windscale reactor has recently been given. (Ref 20). It is the first such work to be done in the UK. The reported timescale is: 1983—fuel removed; 2001—decommissioning starts; 2020—concrete shield to be demolished; 2040—final demolition, and ground returned to normal use.

  Intermediate level radioactive waste was reported as being placed in concrete boxes and kept on the site for 40 years, although this may now be extended to 100 years.

  The timescales for some aspects of the work are still conjectural; evidence to the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution indicated that some major elements of decommissioning might be deferred for up to 130 years after shut down. (Ref 21). Dounreay is also being decommissioned. The reported expected cost is about £4,000 million. (Ref 22)

C.2  Accidents and dangers

C.2.1  Introduction

  Considering the very complex nature of nuclear power station plant and processes and the high operating temperatures, the surprise perhaps is not that accidents have occurred but that they have not been more frequent. This is a tribute to the engineering design, manufacturing quality, assembly and installation care, detailed manuals for operating procedures, and care in operation. When accidents have occurred the causes have frequently been due to failure to follow laid down operating procedures.

C.2.2  Minor accidents

  Minor accidents may not lead to immediate danger to staff or public, but require great care, often much time, and sometimes a shut-down to rectify. The accident at Chapelcross nuclear power station in 2001 illustrates this. The account is taken from press reports compiled from statements made by British Nuclear Fuels Ltd, the operators. It relates to the de-fuelling of one of the four reactors. "Fuel rods used in reactors such as Chapelcross are changed annually. A remote controlled machine removes the uranium fuel elements, held in a large cylindrical `basket'. On Thursday [5 July 2001] one basket came loose as it was being lowered, falling about two feet. Members of the plant's incident team were called to deal with the situation as carbon dioxide was sprayed over the basket to ensure that it [and the uranium] did not catch fire." . . . "Engineers were yesterday trying to decide how to retrieve the fuel rods, which remain where they fell.". . ."The spokesman said that while all incidents were taken seriously, this one was rated as level one—the lowest level on the international events scale." (Scotsman Newspaper, 9 July 2001).

  A week later, further information was make available. "British Nuclear Fuels said yesterday it was switching off all reactors at Chapelcross after reassessing the seriousness of an accident when radioactive fuel was dropped during re-fuelling. This is to facilitate the recovery of the dropped fuel. (Scotsman Newspaper, 17 July 2001). On 24 October, Chapelcross station was still out of action. (Source: enquiry to BNFL press office.)

C.2.3  Major accidents

  Chernobyl and a large area around it are now uninhabited and uninhabitable. Clouds of radioactive substances rose high into the atmosphere. There they were blown by wind to other countries. Rain over Finland carried radioactive elements down onto pastures, and reindeer meat was for a long period prohibited for human consumption. The radioactive cloud passed over Britain; by good fortune little rain fell, but where it did so hill pastures were contaminated and there was a ban on sheep from those areas being used for human consumption. The ban was necessary for some considerable time.

  The Chernobyl accident occurred in a fairly remote region of Russia. In Britain the nuclear power stations are close to large populations. The fact that there has not been a major nuclear accident in Britain does not mean that one cannot happen in the future. A single major nuclear accident in Britain with a large release of radioactive and chemically toxic substances getting on to people, into water supplies and into the agricultural food chain would be a national population catastrophe.

C.3  DISPOSAL OF RADIOACTIVE AND TOXIC WASTES

  Spent nuclear fuel is highly radioactive and chemically toxic. Other parts of the fuel system also become highly radioactive, with substances of long half-life. The Royal Commission in its report published in 2000 includes the following statements. "The problem of managing the wastes created by nuclear power already exists and requires solution in any event. But building new nuclear power stations would add to it. The approach to the disposal of high-level and intermediate-level wastes favoured by the Commission in its sixth report has in effect been rejected, leaving the UK with no generally accepted long-term policy."

  "At the moment indefinite storage of high-level and intermediate-level wastes from the existing use of nuclear power above ground has become policy by default . . . Considerations of inter-generational equity . . . demand the solution of the waste management problem, to the satisfaction of both the scientific community and the general public, before new nuclear power stations are constructed." (Ref 26)

C.4  ECONOMICS

  Nuclear power stations are not economically viable.

  The Royal Commission Report (2000) states "The decisive consideration which the Government regards as ruling out both a Severn Barrage and any new nuclear power station at present is that neither project would be undertaken by a commercial company in the liberalised market for electricity that now exists." (Ref 23)

  British Energy in its recent announcement of plans for 10 new nuclear stations has stated some elements of the economics, and national newspapers on 12 September 2001 carried reports. "Each new station would cost around £1,000 million." . . . "British Energy also wants the Government to take on its £3,000 million liability to reprocess spent nuclear fuel. The company inherited the liability when it was privatised in 1996, and has paid £300 million a year to process spent fuel . . . The Government would need to subsidise the new plants to make them economic." (Ref 24)

  "British Energy has recently made it clear to the City, via a business update, that its UK-based nuclear electricity generation operations will not make a profit this year for the second year running. One problem is that UK wholesale electricity prices have . . . fallen by nearly one third in the past three years." (Ref 25)

C.5  CONCLUSION AND RECOMMENDATION

  Building new nuclear power stations to replace existing ageing ones is not a responsible course in Britain and it should not be adopted. (See also Main Report section 14.2 for alternatives.)



 
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