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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.