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