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German contracts to Dounreay questioned

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

(November 21, 1997) The British government's independent advisory authority on radioactive waste management has said two contracts Dounreay signed with Germany are effectively dumping foreign waste in Scotland, contrary to UK policy. The two contracts concern the importation of 88 tonnes of radioactive sodium from Germany's fast reactor programme and spent fuel from the Hahn-Meitner Institute's research reactor in Berlin to Caithness, in the north of Scotland, where Dounreay is located.

(481.4775) NENIG -For years environmental groups, Scottish local authorities, the SNP (Scottish National Party) and Liberal Democrat party have argued that overseas research reactor operators were using Dounreay's desperation to find new work as the answer to their spent fuel storage problems. To solve these storage shortages and avoid licensing problems for their reactors, the operators have signed reprocessing contracts with Dounreay which include allowing the fuel to be stored at the Caithness site for several years before reprocessing and for the resulting waste to remain there for another 25 years before being returned. In its report, "The Import and Export of Nuclear Waste," the new RWMAC (the Radioactive Waste Management Advisory Committee) says it is "conceivable" that this argument is right. Accordingly, the RWMAC has published new guidelines which could make it harder for wastes to be dumped in the UK under the pretence of reprocessing. Present policy prohibits the import of nuclear waste unless it involves very small quantities, if the treatment process in the UK has already been developed, or it is considered impracticable for the customer country to treat the waste itself. Spent fuel is not regarded as waste by the UK if it is to be reprocessed. Therefore, it is not covered by waste regulations.

Doubts over Berlin contract.
The RWMAC report, which was commissioned by the previous Conservative government, highlights Dounreay's reprocessing contracts with the HMI reactor in Berlin. Fuel for the reactor had been provided by the US, but it had refused to accept importing the fuel - leaving HMI with virtually no choice other than signing a reprocessing contract with Dounreay, or closuring the reactor. Under German law the operators have to show a future waste management strategy, but its storage space in Berlin was nearly full. To get a new operating licence the HMI operators had to free up storage space and Dounreay was the only answer. RWMAC reported that without the contract with Dounreay, HMI could have lost its licence because of its "waste management problem". RWMAC concluded that " is conceivable that a situation might arise where a foreign concern was willing to enter into a reprocessing contract, whether for irradiated or unirradiated fuel, with a UK company in order to rid itself of what it construed as a 'waste management' problem, possibly one of inadequate or hazardous storage. This view can be linked to suggestions that developments in the world nuclear industry are militating against the reuse of materials separated during reprocessing. Under such circumstances, the RWMAC takes the view that the regulators should look carefully at whether the United Kingdom might, in certain circumstances, really be acquiring the waste management problems of another country."

Sodium deal also highlighted.
RWMAC was also critical of the GBP1 million (US$ 1.7 million) contract signed by the privatised company AEA Technology (AEAT) to import 88 tonnes of radioactive sodium from the German Kalkar reactor for treatment at Dounreay. The sodium contains radioactive tritium, cobalt-60, caesium-137 and sodium-22 and is being stored at the Scottish site. A special treatment plant is being built at Dounreay to treat the sodium. RWMAC dismissed AEAT arguments that the waste could not be treated in Germany, because it- did not have a sea disposal route. The advisory committee said it was unclear how it was justifiable for AEAT to build a plant at Dounreay, but not for a similar plant to be built in Germany. Also, RWMAC believed that while the German regulatory authorities would not have allowed waste from treating the sodium to be discharged into the river adjacent to the reactor site, the country did have a coastline which could have offered sea disposal - "it would not be difficult to understand a measure of public concern in the United Kingdom that the principle of self-sufficiency might be being breached." "In the RWMAC's view the sodium disposal facility process amounts to a waste management operation which could quite easily be carried out in Germany." The sodium contract had already been questioned by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) for the same reasons now voiced by RWMAC, but the agency was told the government approved the deal. Since then SEPA has stopped the work on commissioning the new plant at Dounreay by imposing an official Prohibition Notice on AEAT because of concerns that there is inadequate measuring and monitoring of radioactive waste discharges from the facility into the sea.

Return of waste.
The RWMAC report also enters the recent controversy over how long radioactive reprocessing waste should be stored at Dounreay before being returned to the country of origin. Dounreay wants the present 25-year limit to continue, fearing that a lower limit would discourage further contracts. There is also concern at Sellafield that any new lower limit for Dounreay might be imposed on its huge English reprocessing plant as well. SEPA wants the limit reduced to 10 years and RWMAC has stated that the limit should be reviewed "to ensure that countries using UK reprocessing facilities should develop appropriate waste management routes of their own in order to be able to manage the wastes for which they are responsible."

Source: N-Base Briefing 105, 2 November 1997.
Contact: NENIG, Bains Beach, Commercial Street, Lerwick, Shetland ZE1 OAG, UK
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