The gnawing worries about the back-end costs of dismantling old facilities and the risks associated with storing spent fuel for substantial periods threaten to stifle future investment in nuclear technology. But how realistic are these fears? Let’s start with the costs of cleaning up old facilities. Admittedly, Britain’s record in this area is poor. The estimated cost of decommissioning the first generation of facilities — a task far from complete — stands at about £120bn. That is a pretty vast bill when you think the Magnox stations only generated about a tenth of the UK’s electricity in those early years. But it is worth also looking at where this number comes from. About three-quarters relates to the experimental and military facilities constructed at Sellafield in Cumbria in the 1940s and 1950s. These used processes that left big nuclear messes and were built without much thought to how they would ever be dismantled. The priority was manufacturing fissile material for nuclear bombs. Britain also provided for this obligation in the most expensive manner possible. Rather than create a sinking fund to pay for the clean-up, it left the tab for future taxpayers to meet. Future decommissioning will be done more rationally. The switch from idiosyncratic early reactor designs to widely used ones makes the facilities more dismantlable. The UK’s next planned reactors — at Hinkley Point in Somerset — will have a sinking fund from day one to provide for the clean-up — a job its owner, French state-backed energy utility EDF, estimates can be done for about 3 per cent of revenues (£2 to £3 per MWh) over their 60-year life. Of course, decommissioning is only one part of the story. In many ways the bigger barrier to a sustainable nuclear industry is the absence of somewhere to put the high-level waste. Many countries, including Britain, have failed to persuade local communities that depositaries buried deep underground can be safe in the long term. That is because of fears about storing material that could remain radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years. But without such facilities, it is hard to see the industry surviving in the long run. Decommissioning and storage should be manageable problems. It would be bizarre to scrap nuclear over what are prejudices, not real costs and risks.
FT 17th Nov 2019 read more »