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Dounreay: Commercial reprocessing to end - But what does this mean?

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Special: Agenda 2000: Will it increase nuclear safety in Eastern Europe?

(June 19, 1998) On June 5, the Government of the United Kingdom announced reprocessing at the plant in Dounreay will stop in the year 2006. This should not be assessed as a victory: it is the inevitable. In fact the statement revealed that an US$33 million expenditure must have been approved to repair part of the plant.

(494/extra.4887) NENIG - The UK Government's announcement on June 5 that no more commercial reprocessing will be carried out at Dounreay is not what it first appears and, in fact, brings little for opponents to welcome - as it really only accepts the inevitable - and much to continue concern about the operation of the plant and its environmental discharges as it gives the plant the go-ahead to continue work as before.
The Government's apparent sudden turn-around in policy - the Prime Minister and other Ministers were defending Dounreay's future only days earlier - probably had more to do with the elections for the new Scottish Parliament in 11 months, and Labour concerns over the political capital the Scottish Nationalist's were making from Dounreay, than any other reason.

In fact the Government has succeeded in disguising the fact it has approved spending an estimated GBP40 million (US$66 million) on repairing and improving the two reprocessing plants so work can continue as planned for at least another eight years. Before work in the main D1206 plant can re-start reprocessing the remaining 15 tonnes of PFR fuel (the Prototype Fast Reactor) and the breeder fuel from the DFR (the Dounreay experimental Fastbreeder Reactor) reactor (both located at the Dounreay site) major repairs have to be made replacing the faulty dissolver which leaked in September 1996 and closed the plant. These repairs are estimated to cost GBP20 million and the Government statement revealed this expenditure must have been approved - without having to directly mention the decision and face any resulting criticism.

The regulators' safety audit currently underway at Dounreay is certain to recommend improvements and repairs to both D1206 and the D1204 highly-enriched uranium plant. Speaking on Radio Scotland on June 6, the Dounreay director Dr Roy Nelson said an estimated additional GBP20m will have to be spent bringing the plants to standard. This expenditure was also implicitly approved in the governments statement - again without the necessity of a separate announcement.
So the Government has succeeded in regaining the political initiative, at least in the short-term, and appeared to be taking strong action to protect the environment, when in fact it has approved huge expenditure - at least GBP40m - to allow reprocessing to continue.

The Government statement said there would be no new commercial reprocessing at Dounreay - but existing contracts would be honoured. Dr Nelson said that there was about one tonne of spent fuel waiting to be reprocessed, although he gave no details of the contracts. The reprocessing plants will close when work on these contracts and Dounreay's own spent fuel has been completed - estimated to be by 2006. In the meantime reprocessing - and environmental discharges - will restart once the regulators are happy and repairs completed.
There is yet another aspect of the announcement which shows how shrewd the Government's move was. Banning any new commercial work at Dounreay means much less than first appears. The only new commercial work at all likely for the D1204 plant was for 1,000 spent fuel elements at the Lucas Heights reactor in Australia. Even Dounreay's management accepted that the regulators were unlikely to agree to the plant staying open for any longer. The Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) had already rejected UKAEA requests to be allowed to do commercial work in D1206 - at least until all the fast reactor fuel had been reprocessed after which the DTI was most likely to close the plant.

In practice, therefore, the Government's announcement to end commercial reprocessing at Dounreay effectively only confirmed the obvious.

More fuel imported from Georgia as admitted
In the second week of June it was disclosed that UK government ministers were not told that a total of 14kgs of fuel was imported from Georgia - not 4.2kg of unirradiated highly-enriched uranium and 0.8kg of irradiated HEU, as Government Ministers, and Dounreay, originally announced (see WISE NC 491.4870: International row over waste to Dounreay) The government has also admitted that more fuel from the former Soviet Union may be taken to Dounreay for reprocessing. This announcement caused anger among opposition MPs as it was made only days after Mr Battle announced an end to commercial reprocessing at Dounreay - only the fuel already on-site would be reprocessed he said only four days earlier. The Government's justification for importing the fuel from Georgia was a security and proliferation risk involving weapons-grade HEU, but weapons cannot be made out of low-enriched uranium.

Source: NBase Briefing, 6 & 13 June 1998

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