SELLAFIELD'S MAIN international customers have threatened to withdraw their business, throwing the Cumbrian nuclear complex into an unprecedented crisis, according to confidential documents obtained by The Independent on Sunday.
The documents show that nuclear power companies in Germany, Japan, Switzerland, Holland and Italy have warned British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL) - the nationalised industry that owns the complex - that they are considering abandoning contracts worth pounds 6bn to have their used nuclear fuel reprocessed there. They also reveal that the customers are on the verge of "a complete loss of confidence" in the firm.
The threats jeopardise the Government's plans to part-privatise the firm after the general election. BNFL could be forced to close down its controversial Thorp reprocessing plant, at the cost of 2,000 jobs. BNFL's main home customer, British Energy, has already decided to open talks on ending reprocessing its fuel at the plant, describing the practice as "economic nonsense".
Disclosure of the threats comes at the worst possible time for BNFL, which is hoping to get permission to expand its operations at Sellafield shortly after the election, by opening a new pounds 300m plant to turn plutonium into new nuclear fuel.
The Prime Minister and Stephen Byers, Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, are keen to give the plant the go-ahead, despite growing doubts over its profitability. Reprocessing separates used fuel from reactors into plutonium, uranium and waste. It was originally conceived when it was thought that nuclear power would expand so rapidly that uranium would become scarce and reactors would need the recycled uranium and plutonium that it produces. In the late 1970s, Sellafield customers effectively signed open-ended contracts with BNFL, allowing it to charge them whatever it cost to treat their fuel, plus a margin for profit.
Nuclear power is now much less economic, thanks to increased energy market competition. But the overseas …