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An epitaph for Sellafield's THORP reprocessing plant – 'Never did what it said on the tin'

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Cumbrians Opposed to a Radioactive Environment (CORE)

A Sellafield Stakeholder committee was recently told that, by the 11th November, THORP would have chopped up (sheared) its last batch of spent fuel, bringing to an end almost a quarter century of operation – a performance described to stakeholders as 'mission completed successfully'.

As has now become customary for such milestone events, THORP's performance is already being eulogised in a way that can be reconciled neither with the plant's 'mission' as clearly defined by its owner and developer British Nuclear Fuels plc (BNFL) nor indeed with the well documented facts on the ground today.

For right up to its opening in 1994, plans for THORP's operations – its mission – were laid out by BNFL through a range of specific and clearly defined performance targets that included not only how much spent fuel would be reprocessed (and at what rate) over specified timescales and how much profit would be made during the first 10 years of operation (the Baseload).

In more general terms BNFL also aired its aspirations of winning new business for THORP and its ability to operate as a 'recycling' plant. Against these projections, it is only right that the success or failure of THORP's mission is judged on whether, in the event, the plant has done 'what it said on the tin' in terms of meeting those BNFL targets and hopes.

Based on the officially published 'annual throughput' figures (tonnes reprocessed per year) collated by CORE since the plant opened in 1994, THORP has failed to meet those operational targets and schedules by a country mile. Aided and abetted by the periodic failings of associated 'support' facilities such as the High Level Waste Evaporators, THORP's major operational, recycling and potential financial shortcomings, as highlighted below, represent the polar opposite of a 'mission completed successfully'.

'THORP will reprocess 7000 tonnes of fuel in the first 10 years of operation at a rate of 1000 tonnes per year'

Just 5045 tonnes were reprocessed in the first 10 years of operation – the 7000 tonnes only being completed on 4th December 2012 – over nine years late. Not once during the Baseload period (1994-2003) was the throughput rate of 1000 tonnes per year achieved.

'THORP will reprocess 800 tonnes per year during the Post-Baseload period (2004 onwards)'

Whilst the Baseload performance (above) strongly suggested that achieving this rate was highly improbable if not impossible, any chance was finally dashed by THORP's 2005 accident whose irreparable damage slashed the plant's future throughput rate by some 50%. Since its restart in 2007 THORP has averaged 306 tonnes per year. [In 2005, a large leak of a highly radioactive solution was detected ‒ the leak began in July 2004 and went undetected for nine months. British Nuclear Group was convicted for breaches of health and safety regulations and fined £500,000, and the incident was rated Level 3 on the INES scale.]

'Additional business for THORP is expected to be secured from overseas customers'.

No such business was ever secured. Conversely, over 850 tonnes of business was lost when, under a revised Atomic Law, German utilities chose – for economic and environmental reasons – to store their fuel in Germany rather than send it to THORP for reprocessing.

On its opening in 1994, THORP had secured 10,229 tonnes of reprocessing business from the UK, Japan and six European countries. On its closure in 2018 the plant will have reprocessed a total of just 9,300 tonnes 'with all contracts completed'.

'Thorp: a world leading facility for the recycling of used nuclear fuel'

THORP was not designed to recycle spent fuel but to recover materials for subsequent re-use. Of these, the most contentious is plutonium – with a majority of the estimated 56 tonnes recovered by THORP now languishing unused in the Sellafield stockpile, including plutonium 'flag-swapped' to UK ownership by overseas customers who have no use for it.

White elephant

CORE's spokesman Martin Forwood said: "This technically complex 'first of a kind' facility, facing economic and contract doubts from day one, was always going to struggle to meet BNFL targets. It is not surprising that, with its failures, a plant officially dubbed as 'the jewel in Sellafield's crown' should have morphed so quickly into the white elephant expected by many. To assess it as a success would be deceitful in the extreme and represent 'Trumpery' at its most disingenuous."

That THORP was indeed to lose some overseas contracts will have come as no surprise to BNFL whose Director Alan Johnson warned in 1989 (five years before the plant opened) that the global change in attitude to reprocessing posed a very real threat to THORP and that "many of our major customers would love to cancel their contracts" (Channel 4 TV Documentary, 'Inside Sellafield').

Those customers, some of whom had already cancelled contracts in 1995 (and were to cancel more later), vented their frustrations on THORP at a meeting with BNFL in 2000 when they stated that 'your customers are losing confidence in BNFL's technical ability. This loss of confidence was enhanced by BNFL's apparent inability to reprocess our fuel within the agreed baseload period'. (Minutes of meeting held at Heathrow on 18th September 2000.).

The loss of major overseas business (at least 850 tonnes worth) will have impacted on THORP's financial viability. BNFL's claim of a £500 million profit being earned over the first 10-year Baseload period was based on a forecast income of £6 billion and (with decommissioning costs accounted for) operational costs of £5.5 billion. The latter have inevitably escalated as a result of the numerous accidents, equipment failures, unplanned events and unscheduled outages suffered by THORP during those first 10 years.

Under certain contracts, many such costs could not be foisted upon customers. In addition, the plant's decommissioning cost – put by BNFL in 1990 at an 'undiscounted' £700 million – has ballooned today to an 'undiscounted' £3.7 billion (NDA FoI response to CORE, 29 Oct 2018), thus raising further major doubts about THORP's profitability.

Such financial doubts are not new and were raised in the early days of THORP's operation by ex-BNFL Director Harold Bolter who, having played a major role in THORP's development and opening, was later to express the views that: "A business that once looked a sure-fire winner is beginning to look increasingly vulnerable … BNFL's figures underpinning the plant's economic case have turned out to be incorrect in several important respects … if the highly complex plant fails to operate to its projected standard, it will become a huge financial drain on the nation." [Harold Bolter 'Inside Sellafield' published 1996].

Accounts unpublished

That 'the highly complex plant failed to operate to its projected standard' as set by BNFL is beyond doubt. The full impact of these failures on THORP's profitability will however only be determined by the publication of a final 'set of accounts' for the plant. To date, no such figures have been published since the plant opened in 1994 – as confirmed by a Government response to a parliamentary question in 2005 that 'BNFL has never separated the accounts for the THORP plant from other areas'.

Conveniently for those determined to continue to overstate THORP's viability, the final account is going to be a long time in coming for, in its FoI response to CORE, the NDA confirms that it "does not intend to make the financial information available at this time and have no plans for future publication. Ongoing commercial contracts make this information commercially sensitive". In other words, the world and his dog must wait perhaps until the 2070s when, for example, the contracted long-term storage of some 5000 tonnes of UK's AGR fuel is expected to end with its final disposal – or the last kilogram of plutonium is finally put out of harm's way for good.

CORE's Martin Forwood added: "That THORP's finances continue to be withheld from public scrutiny – despite its reprocessing days now being over – will suggest to many that, as well as failing to meet operational targets, the plant is already staring a negative financial outcome in the face. While ardent supporters will always find positives for THORP, its abject failure to meet BNFL's mission objectives cannot be one of them. We wait with interest to see the extent of verbal gymnastics employed by Government, NDA, Sellafield Ltd and others to divert attention from the commercial failures of what was once referred to by the industry as a flagship reprocessing plant."

Reprinted from Cumbrians Opposed to a Radioactive Environment website, 12 Nov 2018,