Help sought on 100-tonne plutonium stockpile

Thursday, April 3, 2008

The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority on Wednesday will appeal to industry for help in dealing with the UK's 100-tonne stockpile of plutonium, and in deciding whether to treat it as waste or reuse it as fuel for nuclear reactors.

One option being considered is for the highly radioactive plutonium to be used to make fuel for a new nuclear reactor at Sellafield, where the plutonium is currently stored. But the question of whether the plutonium should be used or disposed of could reopen the debate on nuclear reprocessing and whether spent fuel from the next generation of nuclear reactors should be reused.

The government will be concerned that the controversial policy of backing new nuclear reactors could be further complicated by the reprocessing issue.

The stockpile has accumulated over 40 years, through the reprocessing of spent enriched uranium fuel from Magnox and AGR nuclear power stations. Reprocessing separates spent fuel into radioactive waste, which needs to be disposed of, and uranium and plutonium, which can be made into mixed-oxide reactor fuel.

Plutonium is also used to make nuclear weapons. No country has yet successfully devised a plan to dispose of the highly radioactive substance. Areva, the French state-owned nuclear company, and US nuclearde commissioning groups such as Fluor and Washington Group are likely to be among those suggesting ideas to the NDA. The agency was set up by the government to tackle the clean-up of Britain's nuclear waste.

The NDA and the companies will look at whether the plutonium should be disposed of with the rest of the UK's highly radioactive waste in an underground bunker or turned into reactor fuel. The NDA hopes to present alist of options to the government by the end of the year.

Ian Roxburgh, NDA chief executive, said it would cost between £3bn ($5.93bn) and £4bn ($7.9bn) to dispose of the plutonium.

The NDA is talking to energy companies including EDF, Eon, RWE and Centrica about building nuclear reactors on some of its sites. Mr Roxburgh said there had been "a robust response" from the companies and that Wylfa in Anglesey and Bradwell in Essex were viewed as the best locations.

It is understood that one proposal under consideration is that a new nuclear reactor at Sellafield could use the plutonium stocks. "That is one credible option," said a person close to the situation.Two plants at Sellafield currently reprocess spent fuel from the UK'sexisting reactors and foreign power plants - although the Thorp reprocessing plant has been beset by operational problems.

The government has not yet decided whether to reprocess fuel from any new reactors built in the UK.

France reprocesses all of its spent fuel, while President Jimmy Carter banned reprocessing in the US in 1977 because of fears of nuclear weapons proliferation.

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