As British plant prepares to make uranium and plutonium, opponents fight on

January 16, 1994|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,London Bureau

SELLAFIELD, Cumbria, England -- William Wordsworth once wrote a sonnet condemning the extension of a railroad into this ruggedly beautiful Lake District where he lived, and it was never built.

But a century and a half later, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and the local Cumbrians Opposed to a Radioactive Environment, among others, have finally lost their battle against something much more frightening -- the THORP nuclear-fuels reprocessing plant.

At midnight tomorrow, the plant will begin reprocessing spent nuclear fuels into two of the most dangerous materials in the world: uranium and plutonium.

THORP, which means Thermal Oxide Processing Plant, has been 20 years in the making, having wallowed through a sea of protests and demonstrations like a whaling ship trying to leave port.

It's been so long in the making that skeptics of the process, which will be the only one of its kind in Britain, include the Clinton administration, a clutch of American members of Congress, the RAND think tank, half a dozen European countries and even some of THORP's customers.

As the process begins tomorrow, a channel will be filled between the deep aqua waters of the receiving tank where nuclear fuel rods are stored and the tank that feeds the reprocessing line. Locks will open, and the tanks will be connected.

About 2,000 metric tons of spent fuel are stored in the reception tank, under about 10 feet of water. Typically, the fuel flasks sit in the pond for five years to cool. The first flasks will move from the storage tank to the feed tank Tuesday or Wednesday.

High Court hearing

But even as preparations for the start-up were under way, Greenpeace and the Lancashire County Council won permission bring a challenge in Britain's High Court of the government's licensing of the $4.2 billion plant. The hearing is set for Feb. 7.

British Nuclear Fuels Limited, the owner and builder of THORP, asserted that Greenpeace had "backed down" from asking the court to prevent the plant from opening.

"We don't need a stay," a Greenpeace spokeswoman said, "because BNFL is so incompetent they can't start this thing up for 30 days."

The High Court hearing will deal with the legality of the government's decision to license radioactive discharge from THORP. Greenpeace contends that the government was required to hold a public hearing.

Bridget Woodman of Greenpeace also contends that radioactive discharge from THORP will kill people.

THORP is part of the Sellafield nuclear power and radioactive fuel reprocessing complex that sprawls a mile and a half along the coast of the Irish Sea in West Cumbria.

The pot-shaped cooling towers of Sellafield steam continuously on the western edge of the Lake District, which hugs the #F Scottish border.

Reprocessing the spent fuel is fairly straightforward but requires resourcefulness and ingenuity in practice. A guillotine-like shears will chop nuclear fuel rods into bits that are a little more than an inch long. A chemical process removes uranium and plutonium from the chopped-up bits.

The radioactive materials will be dried, and the uranium will be packed into stainless-steel drums, the plutonium into a three-part stainless-steel container marked with bar codes like a can of beer in a supermarket.

The vastness of the THORP plant -- 545 yards long, with a chimney jutting higher than the dome of St. Paul's Cathedral in London -- has mostly to do with controlling radiation and disposing of waste.

Greenpeace contends that THORP will increase radioactive pollution from Sellafield. Members of Greenpeace say this will cause at least 60 cancer deaths a year worldwide, 600 in ten years.

David Bonser, director of Thorp, scoffs at the logic that produces these figures.

"What it means is that if you take a particular way of looking at things or calculating things, you can say that one glass of wine each drunk by 100 people has exactly the same health effect as one person drinking a hundred glasses of wine. That's the kind of argument that leads to [the Greenpeace] calculation."

Mr. Bonser was sponsored at Cambridge University by Britain's Atomic Energy Agency. He graduated with a degree in engineering in 1971, joined the newly formed BNFL and has been with them since.

The government, he says, has been making sure that THORP is "safe, environmentally friendly, the nuclear materials are properly safeguarded, it's economically viable and so on."

"We would not be justified in operating the plant if those things were not properly in place," Mr. Bonser says. But the real justification for THORP is a full order book. Mr. Bonser says THORP has 9 billion pounds ($13.5 billion) worth of signed contracts for the first 10 years of operation.

In defense of THORP

"I think the justification is a business argument," he says. "It's a service our customers want."

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