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Sellafield's German PU 'cut and pasted' to France by UK government

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

In a move that overturns one of the major contractual obligations of Sellafield’s overseas reprocessing customers, the UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) has announced a deal that will see German-owned plutonium already stored at Sellafield transferred into the UK stockpile rather than being repatriated to German utilities as required under the original contracts.

These contracts, in which customers committed to having their spent nuclear fuel reprocessed in the Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant (THORP), specifically required the physical repatriation of recovered plutonium to the country of origin. Such contracts, until now, have been robustly defended by Government as being sacrosanct with no leeway for renegotiation.

In what many will see as a significant U-turn by Government on customers’ obligations, the new deal will inevitably raise questions as to why, with a click of a computer mouse, similar arrangements cannot now be made for other foreign owned materials stockpiled at Sellafield, thus eliminating the need for further contentious shipments of highly radioactive materials to be undertaken to overseas customers. These stockpiled materials include the vitrified high level waste (HLW) scheduled for repatriation to Germany and at least 12 tons of Japanese-owned plutonium.

The 13th July 2012 announcement by DECC’s Minister of State for Energy Charles Hendry refers to ‘around 4 tons’ of German plutonium being involved in the deal, some of which had previously been earmarked for conversion to mixed oxide (MOX) fuel in the now defunct Sellafield MOX Plant (SMP). For commercial and security reasons, details of the ‘financial benefits’ to the UK under the new arrangement are not disclosed but are considered by the Government to be sufficient to pay for the estimated costs of managing the plutonium long-term in the UK.

The commercial arrangements of the deal – agreed between the Nuclear De-commissioning Authority (NDA), Fran-ce’s Areva and the German utilities – will allow the utilities to take ownership of an equivalent tonnage of plutonium held at French reprocessing facilities, and to have MOX fuel fabricated in France for their reactors in advance of Germany’s approaching national reactor shut-down. In a move that clearly recognizes the political, security and logistical problems of physically transporting prime terrorist material to Europe, this paper-swap of German plutonium holdings to the UK stockpile also fits conveniently into the Government and NDA’s ‘prefer-red option’ of reusing plutonium in the form of MOX fuel, even though the NDA appears to be having second thoughts with its belated appraisal of GE Hitachi’s PRISM fast breeder reactor to consume the plutonium as an alternative to its reuse as MOX fuel.

The new deal hastens the end the German utilities’ less than happy ex-perience of dealing with Sellafield and THORP. When the plant opened in 1994, Sellafield had secured over 1400 tons of spent fuel reprocessing business from Germany – the plant’s second largest overseas customer.

By 2005 however, when the ban on spent fuel transports from Europe came into force and with some contracts al-ready cancelled, a total of just 850 tons of German spent fuel had actually been delivered to Sellafield. Originally scheduled for completion by 2010, some of this spent fuel still awaits reprocessing today. With other European customers, German utilities have in the past voiced their frustration at Sellafield’s inability to make THORP work properly and vented their anger at the additional reproces-sing costs they consider to have been unfairly passed on to them over the years. 

Whilst DECC’s announcement does not make it clear whether the ‘around 4 tons’ swapped under the new deal accounts for Sellafield’s total holdings of German plutonium, figures from international sources suggests that it does not. They show, for example, that the reprocessing at THORP of 850 tons of German spent nuclear fuel would have resulted in a total of just over 7 tons of plutonium being recovered - including at least 4.5 tons of fissile material. Of this 7-ton total, a small quantity will already have been returned to German customers via a shipment of 4 MOX fuel assemblies from Sellafield in 1996 containing 120kg plutonium, and a further shipment of 16 MOX fuel assemblies - expected to be made in the near future - containing around 450kg of plutonium. The former MOX was fabricated at Sellafield’s MOX Demonstration Facility (MDF – the forerunner to SMP) and the latter at SMP.

Further, in May 2008, an estimated 300kg of plutonium (in dioxide powder form) was shipped from Sellafield to France as repayment for French plutonium used in making MOX fuel orders that had been subcontracted to France by the failing SMP. Of these subcontracted orders a number are confirmed to have been for German utilities and this 2008 shipment is likely therefore to account for a further amount of plutonium having been repatriated to Germany. At most, this shipment together with the 2 MOX shipments would account for a total of up to 875kg of plutonium having been exported from Sellafield’s 7-ton German stockpile. With a further 4 tons now ’exported’ under the new deal, there would appear to be at least 2 tons of German-owned plutonium still remaining at Sellafield.

Source: CORE Briefing 2/12, 15 July 2012
Contact: Cumbrians Opposed to a Radioactive Environment (CORE), Dry Hall, Broughton Mills, Broughton-in-Furness, Cumbria LA20 6AZ, U.K.
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