March 2003

Plutonium proves an explosive problem

The Observer, March 30, 2003
By Oliver Morgan

Original address:,6903,925350,00.html

[Posted 31/03/2003]

Exclusive: The industry's own report (*) shows only that there is no agreement on how to use it or store it.

Nuclear power stations, it was once famously observed, produce three things ordinary people don't want: expensive electricity, radioactive waste, and weapons-grade plutonium. The effects of the first have been felt by the shareholders of British Energy. With terrorists reportedly perpetually in search of 'plute', dealing with the last is becoming a considerably more pressing issue.

This is recognised in a report to be published tomorrow by the Plutonium Working Group - experts from groups ranging from British Nuclear Fuels to CND, who have been working since 1998 to decide how to deal with the UK's 55- tonne stockpile of plutonium.

The report, seen exclusively by The Observer , is part of a long-running consultation by BNFL on dealing with highly sensitive and controversial issues such as plutonium and dealing with nuclear waste. It will be studied in Whitehall, where the Department of Trade and Industry has prepared its own report on what to do about plutonium.

Several members of the group - including eminent nuclear expert Dr Frank Barnaby, a former scientist at the government's atomic weapons establishment at Aldermaston - felt strongly that since 11 September 2001 storage of plutonium at Sellafield has become riskier.

CND's David Andrews, also on the group, says: 'If you flew an airliner into the plutonium store, could it withstand that? There was considerable worry that it would not, and although I felt that terrorists would have difficulty locating the store, I was certainly concerned too.'

So, what to do with it? With the terrorist threat, an acknowledged risk of accidents at the surface storage facility, and the fact that the facility is licensed only until 2033, there is urgency.

But in an industry with powerful players, each with incentives for dealing with one of the most hazardous substances on earth in a different way, it was never going to be easy.

The report, part of a 'stakeholder dialogue' initiated by BNFL to improve its openness, is intended to lay bare differences and resolve them. But there were problems before they got started.

First, does plutonium have any value? If it is used to produce electricity economically in future (BNFL's favoured scenario), it would be worth something. Conversely, the government could declare it waste, which in the words of the report 'would of course create a substantial financial liability on BNFL', although the taxpayer would end up footing the bill through a planned Nuclear Liabilities Authority.

Second, the Government can't decide about plutonium until it has decided what to do about all nuclear waste, which it hasn't.

Despite the non-resolution of these issues, the working group narrowed down the alternatives to four:

Option A: 'immobilising' plutonium by encasing it in a ceramic material

Option B: immobilising it in 'mixed oxide' (MOX) form with uranium at BNFL's Sellafield MOX Plant

Option C: turning it into MOX fuel, for burning in existing nuclear reactors (which would underpin the commercial viability of Sellafield's MOX plant)

Option D: burning it as MOX in new reactors (the BNFL-designed AP1000, which could make BNFL money, underpin Sellafield's MOX plant and secure the future of the nuclear industry).

Naturally, there are deep suspicions. Environmentalists felt BNFL could be using the danger posed by plutonium, and the absence of a waste strategy, to justify an uneconomic nuclear programme by default.

Friends of the Earth, initially part of the dialogue, walked out early on, believing BNFL was set on Option D. FoE's Rachel Western says: 'They had an agenda they brought to this and they were not going to change it. They were not providing the right information and we thought the resources we were dedicating were not worth it.'

Those who remained say progress was made. One member, who prefers to remain anonymous, says: 'The Greens came in with immobilisation as the only option, the company wanted plutonium to be available for use in reactors. They were all forced to change their positions.'

These tensions are borne out in the pages of the report. Timing is vital. The group decided that it could only assume the status quo would be safe for another 25 years. The greens' favoured option, A, - building a plant to immobilise plutonium in ceramics - would see a plant come on stream at the earliest in 2020, with immobilisation by 2037, but much research is needed. According to BNFL even Option B, adapting the Sellafield MOX plant could not start until 2014, with final immobilisation by 2030.

When considering Option C, it was thought that of the UK's existing reactors, only three were suitable, and they would be able to burn only 28 of the 55 tonnes of plutonium. In addition, station owner British Energy says MOX is too expensive - a claim denied by BNFL. The Plutonium Working Group hints that the taxpayer would have to subsidise the cost.

Last, and most uncertain, was Option D, the 'new build' scenario, which could convert the entire stockpile by 2035.

The most obvious 'uncertainty' is that the Government, in its energy White Paper, has said it will not support new reactors for the next five years.

'On the face of it, that's that,' says one member of the panel. 'However, it actually makes the issue more interesting. BNFL has to strengthen its arguments, but it also has to think hard about other options.'

BNFL was torn apart in the report, which states, for example, that 'most of the Plutonium Working Group is disappointed that the Company Study fails to provide the anticipated level of information provision and analysis'. It adds: 'The concern is compounded where such conclusions [reached by BNFL] coincide with the company's pre-existing policy.'

For example, BNFL is accused of not examining the low-specification MOX Option B, which has been 'dismissed too lightly'. BNFL states that immobilisation - Options A or B - is suitable for only 5 per cent of the stockpile The group says BNFL does not justify this.

Conversely, when BNFL states that the costs for generating electricity from new reactors under Option D would be in the range of 2.2-2.3p per kilowatt hour - an economical level - the report criticises it for omitting 'explanation or justification', adding that a recent Cabinet Office review said 3-4p per kilowatt hour was more likely, which is not economical.

Despite the criticisms, BNFL believes the report has been constructive although, as the company's Roger Howsley says, it has not changed its position.

'Everybody came with a point of view. We believed plutonium was an asset. And we believed that it was entirely sensible to use plutonium as a fuel. I think the company still believes that the vast majority of the plutonium we have in store can and should be used for fuel.'

So what was the point of the report?

Professor Steve Jones, an environmental monitoring and radiation protection expert on the group, says: 'BNFL quite clearly had a preference for turning the plutonium into MOX and using it in reactors. And BNFL wants Sellafield to be available to produce commercial MOX. But what has come out of it is that they now realise they have to consider other options.'

But there is clearly a long way to go before any solution can be agreed. Meanwhile the clock ticks and the dangers escalate.

Power players

British Nuclear Fuels

The state-owned Sellafield- based company that reprocesses spent nuclear fuel, a process that gives rise to separated plutonium. BNFL wants to see that plutonium turned into Mixed Oxide Fuel at one of its plants and used to generate electricity in future, preferably in new reactors which it will design.

British Energy

The nuclear generator privatised by the Conservatives in 1996 has been at loggerheads with BNFL over paying £300m a year to reprocess fuel, which it believes is unnecessary, and which was a key cost that helped drive it into financial problems last year.

Reprocessing was originally conceived to generate military stocks of plutonium, of which there is now more than enough, and to prevent the need for a constant supply of uranium, which has turned out to be more plentiful and cheaper than was imagined at the dawn of reprocessing.

Nuclear Liabilities Authority

A government body that will be set up by act of parliament to take responsibility for the country's £60bn worth of nuclear liabilities - decommissioning power stations, dealing with waste and plutonium

*Full report will be available on line at from 31 March

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