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Sellafield: reprocessing to end in 2018 - or...?

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority’s (NDA’s) strategic review has confirmed what has been expected for a while. The Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant (THORP) in Cumbria, England, will complete it reprocessing contracts (both UK and overseas) and then close. However, signs that the NDA has little confidence in predicting the closure of the magnox reprocessing plant are evident in documents published in July.

THORP's reprocessing contracts should be completed by 2018, at which time THORP would cease reprocessing activities and enter a post-closure and clean out phase prior to decommissioning. Any remaining spent AGR fuel from UK reactors, including any future arisings, will be placed into interim storage pending a decision to dispose of it in a geological disposal facility.

There are, however, a number of ‘performance risks’ that could impact on the delivery of the strategy. In other words, THORP might break down, which would be no great surprise given past experience. The NDA had previously expected to complete reprocessing contracts at THORP in 2010, but operational difficulties both in THORP and in downstream support plant, had delayed the completion of that work. Operational difficulties could result in the reprocessing of less than the currently planned amount of spent fuel by late 2018. The NDA says: “We believe, therefore, we should con-tinue to examine alternative options so that we can manage these risks to the delivery of our strategy.”

The NDA says keeping THORP open significantly beyond 2018 would require a major, multibillion pound investment program with like-for-like replacement of many support facilities with little or no prospect of significant new business and hence a return on this investment.

Magnox reprocessing
If THORP does shut in 2018, it would mean that by then all site reprocessing will have ceased because Magnox reprocessing (at the so called B205 plant) was suppose to end the year before. But serious doubts about this has been raised by NDA itself. The Magnox Operating Plan (MOP9) and accompanying Strategy Position Paper reveal how the NDA has been forced into a ‘pick and mix’ approach because of what it describes as the inconsistent and unpredictable performance of the plant and associated facilities. 

When the last operating plan MOP8, published in 2010, had projected a plant closure in 2016, the date was based on a ‘single assumed’ annual throughput being achieved. Continuing poor performance however resulted in an almost immediate extension of the closure date to 2017, and even this is now is deemed to be ‘increasingly unrealistic’. MOP9 now tentatively suggests at least 2 closure dates (or something between the two) for B205 by assuming two different annual reprocessing rates – an upper bound of 740 tons per year and 450 tons per year lower bound. Put in context, the latter rate tallies almost exactly with the average throughput achieved annually by B205 over the last 5 years of operation, whilst the upper bound of 740 tons per year has not been achieved for 8 years.

As the NDA publications show, 3800 tons of magnox fuel remained due for reprocessing as at April this year - 3000 tons held in reactor/dry storage and 800 tons in pond storage at Sellafield or reactor sites. Reprocessing the 3800 tons of magnox fuel remained due for reprocessing, at 740 tons per year would see a 2017/18 closure of the reprocessing plant whereas, at 450 tons per year, reprocessing would continue to 2020 at least. Added to this workload is the 44 tons of metallic fuel from the Dounreay Fast Reactor (DFR), with transports to Sellafield expected to begin from Scotland this year. MOP9 recognises that the addition of this fuel could impact on the overall MOP program but confirms that, with priority given to magnox fuel, reprocessing the DFR fuel will not be allowed to significantly extend the pro-gram without a strategy review.

Though a number of initiatives to improve reprocessing performance are incorporated in a Magnox Throughput Improvement Plan (MTIP) set up last year, the NDA acknowledges that if improvements do not materialize, the annual throughput rate of 450 tons for B205 would ‘seem a reasonable value to select’ and will result in a 2020 end to reprocessing. If implemented, it will result in further years’ of radioactive discharges to the environment from the reprocessing plant at levels that pose an added threat – denied by the NDA - to meeting the already jeopar-dized international treaty targets on marine pollution signed up to by the UK Government at the OSPAR convention in 1998. At greatest risk would be the target of concentrations of radioactivity in the marine environment being ‘close to zero’ by 2020.

In operational terms, this ‘reasonable value’ of 450 tons per year represents a significant downgrading of reprocessing targets made by the NDA just 5 months ago in a supplement to its much vaun-ted Sellafield Plan. Described as ’the first credible and underpinned lifetime plan for the Sellafield site’, it projected throughput rates for magnox reprocessing from 2012 to 2017 which ranged from 650800 tons per year. Given the well documented frailties and problems of the ageing reprocessing plant and associated facilities – and its recent track record - these projections were patently incredible and appear to have been plucked from thin air rather than being based on a professional appraisal of the plant’s operational capabilities.

Although a large proportion of the 10,000 strong Sellafield workforce is employed on reprocessing, the anticipated number of job losses is not as great as first expected due to more focus on removing Sellafield’s high-hazard risks and increased NDA financial resources to accelerate decommissioning pro-jects. It is also possible that the government will eventually give the go-ahead for a second Mox plutonium recycling plant.

Source: NuClear News 42, July 2012 / CORE Press release, 20 July 2012
Contact: Cumbrians Opposed to a Ra-dioactive Environment (CORE), Dry Hall, Broughton Mills, Broughton-in-Furness, Cumbria LA20 6AZ, U.K.
Tel: +44 1229 716523
Email: info[at]

Sellafield Mox Plant axed by Fukushima fallout - says NDA

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

In what came clearly as a surprise to the gathering of Sellafied stakeholders, the closure of the Sellafield MOX Plant (SMP) was officially announced at West Cumbria Site Stakeholder Group (WCSSG) August 3 meeting. The decision had been made at an NDA Board meeting last week on the grounds that the commercially impotent plant no longer ‘had customers or finance’.

In its press statement, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) says the decision was reached following discussions with Japanese utility customers on the impact on the Japanese nuclear industry of the earthquake in March, including potential delays that would effect SMP’s projected program. The Board concluded that in order to protect the UK taxpayer from a future financial burden, closing SMP at the earliest practical opportunity was the only reasonable course of action.

CORE’s spokesman Martin Forwood said today: “We shed no tears for a white elephant plant that should never have opened in the first place. Had the NDA genuinely wished to save taxpayers money, it should have grasped the many opportunities provided during SMP’s sorry commercial lifetime to put it out of its misery. The NDA has effectively passed the buck to Japan do its dirty work for it and take the blame”.

The prolonged battles to get SMP built and operating, including legal challenges, had already provided ample warning to Sellafield that the commercial prospects for the plant were less than robust. With the first planning application to the Local Authority made in 1992, SMP finally opened with the introduction of the first plutonium in 2002 and only then after five public consultation exercises stretching between 1997 and 2001. Focusing specifically on the economic business case for the plant, the later consultations raised serious doubts as to where the contracts would come from and whether the ‘overly technical and complex plant’ could actually produce the goods to customers’ rigid specifications.

Built to manufacture 120 tons of MOX fuel per year, and with an operating lifespan of 20 years, SMP produced no fuel whatsoever until its third year of operation and a total of just 13 tons in its 9 years of operation which saw a number of contracts having to be sub-contracted to SMP’s arch-rivals in Europe. Despite dire warnings in 2006 and 2007 from Government commissioned consultants Arthur D Little (who had originally provided Government glowing reports of the plant’s prospects) that without further investment the plant would never operate as originally planned, the NDA continued to support its operation and in so doing wasted an estimated BP 1.4 billion (US$ 2.25 bn or 1.6bn euro) of taxpayers money.

A final lifeline was thrown to SMP in 2010 by the NDA involving a prolonged closure for complete refurbishment to be financed at an estimated cost of BP 200 million by Japanese utility customers, with the lead customer for the ‘revamped’ SMP identified as Chubu Electric’s Hamaoka plant. Dubbed in Japan as ‘the most dangerous atomic facility in the quake-prone archipelago’, Hamaoka was forced to close earlier this year by the Japanese Government’s demand for seismic tests and safety improvements. With the postponement of any further use of MOX fuel in Hamaoka’s reactors, SMP’s sole contract and lifeline was lost.

Martin Forwood added: “As widely expected by all but Government and Industry, the ‘cast-iron’ assurances in the late 1990’s from its then owner British Nuclear Fuels that sufficient business would be secured from Japan to warrant the plant’s operation were worthless, with SMP failing to secure even one Japanese contract during its operational lifetime. It is ironic that it should be the very customers it was built to serve who have switched off its life support machine”.

SMP directly employs around 650 workers and the NDA announcement of its closure has drawn the expected outcry on job losses and prophecies of gloom and doom for Sellafield which historically and routinely accompany the slightest threat, genuine or otherwise, to any of the site’s commercial facilities. As compensation, the NDA suggested to the August 3 stakeholder meeting that there was the prospect of a new MOX plant being built and, for their part, the Unions expressed some confidence that the workers could be redeployed elsewhere on site.

SMP’s closure has however opened the proverbial can of worms, particularly in respect of a new MOX plant being built. The current rationale behind the NDA’s thinking appears to be that as long as Japan’s program of MOX use has not completely sunk under the waves of the tsunami and the Fukushima catastrophe, the 13 tons of Japanese plutonium recovered by reprocessing at Sellafield might yet be converted to MOX in the new plant which could also be used to reduce the 110 ton stockpile of UK owned plutonium for use in the UK’s new-build reactors. The cost of a new MOX plant has been put at around BP 1.4 billion.

Martin Forwood further commented: “It beggars belief that the NDA appears hell-bent on repeating its own very recent and taxpayer-costly mistakes on MOX. Whilst they may wish to ‘appease the natives’ with the prospect of a new plant, there is no evidence whatsoever that sufficient MOX demand worldwide exists or will exist – particularly in the UK where many of the proposed new reactors may never get built. This is pie-in-the sky stuff and they should be concentrating instead on putting the dangerous plutonium stockpile permanently out of harm’s way and treat it as a waste by, for example, using SMP and its current workforce to immobilise plutonium in ‘low-spec’ MOX for disposal”.

Source: Press release CORE, 4 August 2011
Contact: Cumbrians Opposed to a Radioactive Environment. Dry Hall, Broughton Mills, Broughton-In-Furness, Cumbria LA20 6AZ, UK.
Tel/Fax: +44 (0)1229 716523

NDA announce Japanese MOX with the Sellafield MOX plant

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Martin Forwood at CORE

Over a decade after British Nuclear Fuels plc (BNFL) had persuaded the UK Government that they should be allowed to build and operate Sellafield Mox Plant (SMP) to satisfy the then currently perceived demand by Japan for Mixed Oxide (MOX) fuel, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA who took ownership of Sellafield from BNFL in 2005) has announced that contracts with SMP from 10 Japanese power companies have now been secured.

Whilst the news throws a lifeline to the struggling SMP – a plant originally designed to produce 120 tons of MOX fuel per year, but which has managed a total of little over 10 tons in 8 years of operation – the deal is far from being ‘done and dusted’ and will be entirely dependent on the installation of new equipment and extensive modifications to the plant, all of which will be paid for by the Japanese.

Whilst the timescales for the work has not been divulged by the NDA, it is likely to extend over many, many months and can only begin once SMP’s current order has been completed. This is for a German utility and could be expected to be completed this summer. Once finished, SMP must be closed to undergo a full clean-out, followed by modification and installation of new equipment, and then be re-commissioned – a process that will require the necessary approvals of the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate (NII). Such approvals are likely to be required in separate stages as different parts of the plant are worked on.

Once SMP is re-commissioned and has secured consent from the Japanese companies that it is ‘fit for purpose’, a test run of plutonium fuel production will be carried out by SMP on behalf of Japan’s Chubu Electric – one of a number of Japanese customers who placed reprocessing business with Sellafield’s Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant (THORP) thirty years ago. THORP secured orders from Japan amounting to 2864 tons of spent fuel for reprocessing (including 162 tons from Chubu Electric). From the reprocessing of this fuel, some 12 tons of plutonium have been recovered and stockpiled at Sellafield and on May 13, the NDA confirmed to CORE that it is the intention of the Japanese companies to convert all 12 tons of plutonium into MOX fuel at SMP.

THORP’s reprocessing of the Chubu Electric fuel sourced from its Hamaoka 1, 2 and 3 power stations (Boiling Water Reactors, BWR), which are located on Japan’s eastern coast south of Tokyo, will have recovered 1 ton of plutonium - sufficient to make some 100 BWR MOX fuel assemblies for Hamaoka. It remains unknown whether this, or a smaller number of assemblies, will form SMP’s test-run once the plant has been re-commissioned.

It also remains unknown what will happen to the bulk of the Japanese orders if SMP’s test-run for Chubu Electric fails to live up to NDA’s optimistic expectation, and it is unclear how the newly secured business from Japan will be dovetailed with the plant’s few remaining European contracts (Germany, Sweden and Switzerland).

German utilities, facing the possibility of the phase-out of their nuclear power stations, will be particularly concerned that the apparent preference now given by the NDA to SMP’s use for Japanese business, could see their orders fail to materialise in time for reactor use. 

SMP began production in 2002 when the first plutonium was introduced into the plant. Though BNFL originally applied to build the plant in 1992, and sought approval to operate it in 1996, the planning process was delayed by 5 periods of public consultation and legal challenges. Government approval to operate SMP was finally secured in 2001, but only after any hopes of winning MOX orders from Japan had been scuppered when, in 1999, bored Sellafield workers admitted falsifying the quality assurance data for a small consignment of Japanese MOX fuel which had been produced in Sellafield’s MOX Demonstration Facility (MDF) - the forerunner to SMP.

With a number of orders having to be sub-contracted to its rival fabricators in Europe because of its poor performance, SMP’s future has remained under constant review by the NDA and Government, with threat of closure if performance failed to improve and no new business was secured. In its current state, with production bottlenecks and little hope of working automatically, the plant’s annual production rate has been downgraded from 120 to 40 tons. Given recent operational evidence, even this target appears unachievable. In early 2007 for example, work was started on a German order for 8 MOX fuel assemblies (around 4 tons). These were finally completed over 2 years later in August 2009. A second batch of 8 assemblies, also for Germany’s Grohnde power station, is currently underway in SMP and is likely to be the last order before the plant is closed for modification in advance of the Japanese business.

Source: CORE Briefing, 13 May 2010
Contact: Martin Forwood at Cumbrians Opposed to a Radioactive Environment, (CORE) Dry Hall, Broughton Mills, Broughton-in-Furness, Cumbria LA20 6AZ, U.K..
Tel: + 44 1229 716523

Sellafield Mox Plant: stuck on the road to nowhere

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Martin Forwood

The poor prognosis for the crippled Sellafield MOX Plant (SMP) by its owners the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA), in its Plutonium Topic Strategy document of January 30, is now confirmed by the Guardian Newspaper (February 17) which quotes ‘well placed industry sources’ as saying that there was little chance the plant would stay open. This will come as little surprise to observers who have watched SMP’s wretched performance since it opened in 2002 – with perhaps the only surprise being that the plant has survived this long.

The NDA’s Plutonium Topic Strategy document states that SMP provided neither the capacity nor the longevity to be used for converting the UK’s civil stockpile of plutonium (now in excess of 100 tons) into reactor-useable MOX fuel – an inference that its MOX fuel making days were numbered - and that the plant might in future be utilized ‘in a meaningful manner’ for producing low specification MOX fuel as a means of transforming plutonium stocks into a waste form for eventual disposal.

SMP, built between 1994 and 1997 at an original cost of BP 470 million (in 1997 1 BP was US$1,6) and currently employing some 800 workers, has been dogged by controversy since the initial planning application was submitted by British Nuclear Fuels plc to Copeland Borough Council in 1992. Ten years later, following five Public Consultation exercises and a number of legal challenges, the first plutonium dioxide powder was introduced into the plant in April 2002. Designed to manufacture 120 tons of MOX fuel per year by utilizing the plutonium recovered at the Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant (THORP) from foreign customers’ Light Water Reactor (LWR) fuel, gremlins in SMP’s highly complex process have resulted in its production capacity being officially downsized, first from 120t/yr to 75t/yr and then to around 40t/yr. Even that reduced target is clearly beyond the capability of the plant as performance figures for the plant since it opened in 2002 testify.

In a February 2008 Parliamentary answer on SMP production, the UK Government’s Secretary of State Malcolm Wicks confirmed that SMP, having produced no MOX fuel in its first two years of operation, produced 0.3 tons in 2004/05, 2.3 tons (2005/06) and 2.6 tons (2006/07) – a total of just 5.2 tons in 5 years. This completed tonnage of fuel formed part of a longstanding order from the Swiss Beznau PWR power station, and the order of 12 MOX fuel assemblies, at 314 kg per assembly, were transported by sea to Switzerland in three shipments between 2005 and November 2006.

The most recently available production figures show a similarly poor performance with little sign of any improvement in getting to grips with the production process, described at the outset by BNFL as its own Short Binderless Route (SBR) process ‘which gives major benefits for the fabrication process and subsequent fuel performance’.

Consisting effectively of 3 production stages of fuel pellet, fuel rod and fuel assembly production, the system has repeatedly suffered from problems at each of the production stages – with a major bottleneck at the rod production stage - bringing the whole fabrication process to a virtual standstill.

With the Swiss order completed and delivered to Beznau by 2006, SMP was reconfigured to manufacture MOX fuel for Germany’s Grohnde PWR power station in early 2007. Unlike the Swiss fuel which is configured in a 14x14 layout within the assembly, the German fuel is configured in a 16x16 layout, within fuel assemblies of 536kg each. Every change in layout necessitates a reconfiguration of SMP which takes ‘weeks, if not months’ to complete.

By the end of 2008 Sellafield confirmed that just 2 MOX fuel assemblies for Grohnde had been completed, and the latest projection is that ‘SMP aims to have produced enough material for around eight fuel assemblies by the end of the Financial Year’ (by March 31, 2009). This claim must be viewed with some suspicion as the plant’s past performance shows that, as a result of serious bottlenecks throughout the production system, producing enough material for 8 MOX fuel assemblies is a far cry from actually completing finished fuel assemblies.

In the unlikely event that 8 assemblies for Grohnde are indeed completed by the end of the financial year, and assuming a plutonium mix of 6%, it would add only another 4.25 tons of MOX fuel to SMP’s overall output, making a grand total of 9.5 tons since operations started 7 years ago. This represents an average rate of some 1.3 tons of MOX fuel per year - a far cry from the 40t/yr target (at best) now acknowledged by the industry.

A measure of the extent of SMP’s failure can be further gauged from its original order book and the fact that the rationale for building the plant was predicated on securing a majority of its MOX fuel orders from Japanese utilities. No firm orders from Japan have materialized and none featured in the original order book which consisted of contracts with European customers only. Of these orders - from Switzerland, Germany and Sweden - a number have already had to be sub-contracted between 2002 and 2005 to rival MOX fabricators in France and Belgium.

A further measure can be seen in the NDA’s highly optimistic 2005/06 Life Cycle Base Line (LCBL) forecast on SMP which projected, for example, a total Grohnde contract of 64 MOX fuel assemblies, with the first 16 assemblies being delivered in 2008 (just 2 had actually been produced in SMP by 2008) and further shipments of 16 assemblies each being made in 2009, 2010 and 2012 respectively. Similarly, the LCBL projected orders of 44 assemblies (532kg each) for the German Brokdorf power station, the first 12 to be delivered in 2007, and an order of 88 assemblies (200kg each) for Sweden’s Oskarshamn BWR power station, the first 24 also to be delivered in 2007. Clearly these orders must now be seen as lost causes and a large proportion are likely to have been lost or similarly sub-contracted since 2005.

Two further comparisons are also worth noting. Firstly the comparison with Sellafield’s significantly smaller MOX Demonstration Facility (MDF) which cost £26 million and operated between 1993 and 1999 before being closed as a commercial production plant by the Regulators following the ‘falsification scandal’ in 1999 which saw bored workers at the plant falsifying quality assurance data on fuel manufactured for a Japanese customer. Records show that during its 6-year life, the 8 ton per year demonstration facility produced 36 assemblies totaling around 18 tons of MOX fuel – twice the tonnage produced by SMP in 7 years of operation.

The second comparison relates to the granting by the Regulators of a ‘Consent to Operate’ for SMP. The Consent effectively marks the end of the active commissioning of the plant and the start of full commercial production, and implies that both the Regulators and the operators of the plant are satisfied with the safety and reliability of the production process.

The Health & Safety Executive’s Nuclear Installations Inspectorate (NII) are quoted as expecting to have given this Consent in 2004, some 2 years after the introduction of the first batch of plutonium into the plant. As SMP has lurched from one crisis to another, hopes of gaining the Consent to Operate have been put back year on year and Consent is not now expected to be applied for by the operators until 2010 at the earliest.

Because of ‘commercial confidentiality’ restrictions, little detail is known about additional and unexpected costs incurred by SMP. With the use of some creative accounting, the original construction cost of £470M was written off as a sunk cost – leaving independent consultants, commissioned by Government, to conclude that the plant had a Net Positive Value (NPV) of some £200M (US$290 million). Had the construction costs been properly included, SMP would have been a loss maker from day one. Additional costs since then, including confirmed lost revenues on every order that has had to be sub-contracted to Europe, mean the overall costs to SMP will have spiraled significantly, up to the £2 Billion as quoted in the Sellafield area’s local newspaper (Whitehaven News, February 18, 2009). A January 2009 meeting of local liaison committee was told that due to the complexity of the design and build of the plant ‘SMP is unlikely to meet planned throughput without further investment’

Whilst those who opposed SMP, from its first appearance in BNFL’s 1992 planning application and through all subsequent consultations and legal challenges, had correctly forecast the likely shortcomings of the plant, including the highly suspect economic case put forward by BNFL, the complexity of the production process and the thin order book secured by SMP, its owners (NDA) and operators (Sellafield Ltd) only now appear to recognize the hopelessness of the plant’s operational and financial position.

In retrospect, even they now appear to concede that the plant’s process system was too complex to succeed as projected (as admitted by the Secretary of State in 2008 – ‘SMP was based on unproven technology’), that BNFL had only limited experience of manufacturing MOX fuel for overseas LWR’s, that the plant’s inherently weak business case was never properly scrutinized, and that hopes of securing large orders from Japan have virtually evaporated as a result of the loss of trust by Japanese utilities following the 1999 MOX falsification scandal.

When it took ownership of SMP in April 2005, the NDA advised that the plant’s future was under review. It has remained under review ever since, but apart from the published (but heavily redacted) reports commissioned from independent consultants Arthur D Little in 2005 and 2006, all other reviews have been carried out behind closed doors by the NDA and its in-house contractors, and have remained unpublished – despite the former’s promise of openness and transparency.

It is perhaps not surprising that the NDA is keen to keep the full extent of SMP’s current state from public scrutiny given that ADL, in its last published report (2006) had come to some damning conclusions. Commenting on the downgrading of production from 120t/yr to 40t/yr, ADL said that the plant’s operators had not yet been able to demonstrate that SMP was capable of sustaining continuous operation at a level needed to meet customer requirements and that because of operational difficulties holding back fuel production, SMP’s NPV (£200M) had been ‘substantially eroded’. Further, that the prospect of fully automatic operation for SMP was ‘only a remote possibility’, and that the plant had a potential throughput of only a few tons of plutonium a year at best.

This ADL reference to plutonium volumes is itself overly optimistic, given that even at the original SMP design production rate of 120t/yr, the plant was predicted by BNFL to utilize at most around 7 tons of plutonium recovered from THORP each year. In reality, with just 12 MOX fuel assemblies already fabricated for Switzerland, and with a possible further 8 assemblies ‘on the go’ for Germany, the total plutonium utilized in SMP to date (at an incorporation rate of 6% in MOX fuel) will amount to just half a ton of plutonium utilized in 7 years of operation.

The latest in-house review, consisting of a technical, strategic and operational assessment of SMP is due to go before the NDA Board of Directors in March 2009 and then on to UK Government. There is as yet no indication as to how the new Parent Body Organisation (PBO) in charge at Sellafield views the current crisis with SMP.

Taking over the management of Sellafield’s commercial operations in November 2008 under contract to the NDA (the contract worth an estimated £22 Bn over 17 years), the PBO Nuclear Management Partners (NMP) consists of the US Washington Group International Limited, UK’s AMEC Nuclear Holdings Limited and France’s AREVA NC.

Given AREVA’s relative success in manufacturing MOX fuel in France for many years, it remains to be seen whether they will advise ‘turning off the life support machine’ for SMP, perhaps suggesting instead the construction of a new MOX plant at Sellafield or alternatively reaching an agreement to transfer plutonium stocks to France where it could be fabricated into MOX fuel. Such an agreement would be hampered not only with operational difficulties both in the UK and France – Sellafield for example has no official export route for THORP plutonium – but would incur political and international condemnation at the prospect of shipping 100 tons of prime terrorist material in an era of heightened terrorist risk.

Clearly recognizing Sellafield’s inability to manufacture MOX fuel on anything like a commercial scale, the local MP Jamie Reed (an ex BNFL PR man) and the site’s workforce and trades unions are pressing for a new MOX plant to be constructed at Sellafield. As one independent observer has noted ‘it is good to hear that our elected representatives are keeping up the tradition (in the nuclear field) of only advocating investment in proven failure’.

A decision on a new plant could be made only by Government Ministers, following advice of the NDA who are currently grappling to resolve the fate of Sellafield’s embarrassing stockpile of plutonium.

Source and contact: Martin Forwood at CORE (Cumbrians Opposed to A Radioactive Environment). Dry Hall, Broughton Mills, Broughton-in-Furness, Cumbria LA20 6AZ, UK.


Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

(December 15, 2006) At Carlisle Crown Court, British Nuclear Group (BNG) was fined £500,000 (currently about 575.000 Euro) for the accident in April last year at Sellafield's THORP. The accident was classified at Level 3 on the International Nuclear Event Scale, the worst recorded accident at Sellafield for many years.

(650.5775) Laka Foundation - BNG, who operate Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant (THORP) under contract to site owners the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA), had pleaded guilty in an initial hearing at Whitehaven Magistrates Court earlier this year to three charges brought by the Health & Safety Executive (HSE). The charges, under the Nuclear Installations Act 1965, related to breaches of Sellafield site licence conditions, and were summarized by HSE as (i) failing to make and comply with written instructions, (ii) failing to ensure that safety systems are in good working order and (iii) failing to ensure that radioactive material is contained and, if leaks occur, that they are detected and reported.

In fining BNG, Judge Openshaw told the Court that as BNG had pleaded guilty to the offences, he was reducing what he considered to be an appropriate level of fine of £750,000 to £500,000. In reminding the Court of the 'cumulative failures' and the 'worker culture of tolerating alarms' that had lead to the accident, he added that BNG's failure to detect the leak 'probably within days' rather than 8 months was a serious failure worthy of condemnation.

The accident, reported to the HSE's Nuclear Installations Inspectorate (NII) on April 20, 2005, entailed the undetected spillage of 83,000 litres of highly radioactive dissolved nuclear fuel and nitric acid over an estimated 8 month period from fractured pipework in the plant's Feed Clarification Cell. The plant was closed immediately and has remained shut down since then. During the closure, which has seen 18 months of reprocessing business put on hold, 2 improvement notices and 49 recommendations have been served on BNG by the NII along with a further 18 recommendations imposed by BNG following its own Board of Investigation into the accident..

At the time of the accident, (THORP's 11th year), the plant was running almost 3 years behind schedule, with just 5729 tonnes of spent fuel reprocessed from a total of 7000 tonnes originally scheduled for completion in the first 10 years of operation (the baseload). The outstanding fuel includes over 700 tonnes of foreign fuel, with the remainder being UK fuel from British Energy's (BE) Advanced Gas Cooled reactor stations. If and when these 'baseload' contracts are completed, a further volume of fuel (post-baseload), largely from BE, is also contracted for reprocessing at THORP.

Restart of the plant, already re-scheduled a number of times, is now set for early 2007, providing all required recommendations have been 'closed out' to the satisfaction of the NII and with the agreement of the NDA. THORP's future however currently remains under close review by the NDA and by the Government who will make the final decision as to whether further reprocessing at the plant can be justified.

The costs of the accident, not yet fully quantified, have been put variously between £50M and hundreds of £M. Modifications (rather than repairs) to THORP's damaged Cell, now completed, will allow an eventual re-start of the plant by by-passing the damaged equipment and pipework. As a result of the modified system, THORP's future throughput rate is expected to be limited to well below the plant's design specification.
Martin Forwood added: "We have major concerns about the restart of THORP given that the systems and pipework that will be used share exactly the same history as that which failed so comprehensively during the accident from metal fatigue and other stresses. As the plant can never again operate as originally designed, there are no good grounds for resuscitating this White Elelephant. We will continue to call for its immediate closure".

More Sellafield News:
Reprocessing at the Sellafield complex has been halted completely early December as a safety precaution following discovery that radioactivity has been leaking into an evaporator's cooling water. This means Magnox reprocessing will not be able to restart until the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate gives the all-clear, which is not expected before January.
Meanwhile, British Nuclear Group has signed a new MOX fuel supply contract with German utility EnBW kernkraft, for the supply and transport of MOX fuel to the Neckarwestheim 2 reactor. It also requires EnBW to commit to convert all the plutonium arising from their reprocessing contract at Sellafield into MOX. But this presumably means BNG has to get the Sellafield MOX-plant and THORP working properly.

Sources: CORE Press Release, 16 October 2006 / Whitehaven News, 8 December 2006 / Renew, the NATTA newsletter # 164, Nov/Dec 2006
Contact: CORE, 98 Church Street, Barrow In Furness, Cumbria LA14 2HT, U.K.
Tel: +44 (0)1229 833851; Fax: +44 (0)1229 812239