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