Thorp fuel plant to restart in new year

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

By Rebecca Bream, Utilities Correspondent
Mon Oct 22 23:06:32 EDT 2007

The Thorp nuclear fuel reprocessing plant in Sellafield is set to restart full commercial operations in the new year, almost three years after it was closed following a radioactive leak.

The Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant, or Thorp, at the nuclear complex in west Cumbria, is a large source of income for the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, the government body that owns the site. The plant recycles spent fuel from reactors by dissolving it in nitric acid and removing the waste, leaving uranium and plutonium that can be made into fresh fuel.

In April 2005 it was discovered that 83 cubic metres of the radioactive acid had leaked from a holding tank into the surrounding concrete containment shell. British Nuclear Group, which was in charge of running Sellafield, said the incident posed no danger to the public but admitted the leak had gone undetected for months.

BNG and its parent British Nuclear Fuels are in the process of being broken up and privatised, and the company running Thorp was recently rebranded Sellafield Ltd. A five-year contract to manage the complex will be awarded to a private-sector bidder next year.

Thorp recently completed the reprocessing of 30 tonnes of fuel that was in the system when it was shut down, and the NDA said on Monday it had been "a success". The Health and Safety Executive gave approval for Thorp to restart earlier this year, but problems with equipment that evaporates moisture at the end of the reprocessing cycle led to delays.

Sellafield Ltd said it was hopeful that the problems with the evaporators would be solved soon, and that Thorp could resume commercial operations early next year. "We are hoping to start the next batch of fuel in the new year," it said.

The NDA said Thorp's shutdown meant it had not received £112m of income in the 2006-07 financial year. The agency's income was £1.2bn but it faces a bill of more than £70bn for the clean-up of the UK's nuclear waste, most of which is at Sellafield.

The NDA views income from commercial operations such as Thorp as important in limiting the burden on UK taxpayers.

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