The move is intended to help resolve a crisis in Germany over transport of irradiated nuclear fuel and in particular to persuade the German environment ministry to end a current ban on shipments. However, it could entail high political risks for the two companies, which would become further associated with a politically unpopular activity.
The company currently responsible for shipping irradiated fuel from German power stations is owned collectively by nuclear companies. The government banned all shipments in May after radioactive contamination was discovered on rail containers (ENDS Daily 7 May). A public outcry followed when it emerged that power companies had known of contamination incidents for over ten years but had not reported them. The government subsequently made a restructuring of transport and monitoring responsibilities a pre-condition for lifting the ban.
Initial discussions have been held between the environment ministry, German nuclear utilities and BNFL and Cogema over a possible role for the two firms, spokespeople for several of the organisations have confirmed.
According to Cogema, German utilities asked the reprocessors for assistance and the two firms are now discussing the idea of setting up a joint company to take over responsibility for German shipments. BNFL said that it had the "capability to provide the full transport infrastructure and organisation to undertake...transports of spent fuel". The German environment ministry confirmed that it was considering the proposal as a possible route to lifting the waste shipment ban.
Any move by BNFL and Cogema to take over shipments of German waste could herald a broader European involvement in the business. A BNFL spokesperson said that if the proposed new system worked in Germany it might also be of interest to the Swiss authorities, which have also banned waste transports following the radioactive contamination revelations.
But taking responsibility for the transports also has the potential to become a political liability for the two firms, which are already key targets for European environmental groups. In an indication of how they might respond, a spokesperson for Greenpeace Germany today described the prospect of BNFL and Cogema running waste shipments as "absurd and grotesque". The public would not trust firms responsible for radioactive pollution to run nuclear transports, he predicted.
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