shutdown ends the nuclear dream
The Guardian, August 26, 2003
By Paul Brown, environment correspondent
Original address: http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk_news/story/0,3604,1029333,00.html
£1.8bn Thorp plant that promised limitless
electricity to close by 2010.
Sellafield's Thorp reprocessing operation, once
hailed as the saviour of the British nuclear industry with its promise
of producing limitless electricity throughout the 21st century, is to
close by 2010, the Guardian can reveal.
The £1.8bn works, which opened only nine years
ago, is to be wound down by British Nuclear Fuels, which now hopes to
convert it into a waste handling facility.
Brian Watson, director of the Sellafield site, told
the Guardian the company was changing from production into a nuclear
waste disposal company. The days of reprocessing spent fuel to produce
plutonium and uranium for potential reuse are numbered.
"There is £30bn worth of clean up work
here. We are switching from reprocessing to clean-up. We hope that will
be seen in a more positive light."
Reprocessing was the nuclear dream. Now there is
75 tonnes of plutonium and 3,336 tonnes of uranium recovered from reprocessing,
all stored and closely guarded but with no obvious use, at Sellafield.
In a swipe at ministers Mr Watson admitted: "It
would greatly help our situation if we had some decisions from the government
about what to do with all this."
He said BNFL had made some bad mistakes, the most
recent the fuel quality falsification scandal of 1999, but there had
"We have had to get rid of the job-for-life
attitude, the resistance to change, the cost-plus-contracts, that meant
there was no discipline. This site is like a supertanker that takes
some turning. I have had to let people who would not make the change
go, and go they have. We have changed the reprocessing mission to one
of clean up."
BNFL is being changed from the owner of Sellafield
into a management company since it became technically bankrupt two years
ago with liabilities now estimated at £41bn. The government is
creating a nuclear decommissioning authority to take over the assets
The thermal oxide reprocessing plant (Thorp) was
opened in 1994 after a high court battle over whether it was needed
or justified. The company boasted of Thorp being the country's largest
yen earner because of its contracts to reprocess large imports of spent
nuclear fuel from Japan.
Opposition to the plant was based on the fact that
it produced plutonium and uranium that was not needed. The process also
produced hard-to-handle radioactive liquid waste, all at a much higher
cost than storing spent fuel which could eventually be disposed off.
Thorp was supposed to reprocess 7,000 tonnes of
spent fuel in 10 years but it is years late on its target and is being
run at about 50% of capacity. This is because the dangerous liquid waste
produced by reprocessing cannot be disposed of fast enough to satisfy
the government's safety regulators. The plant will close when it has
fulfilled its current contracts - expected to be in 2010.
The closure of Thorp will come two years before
a much older reprocessing works built in the 1950s for the Ministry
of Defence to separate plutonium for nuclear weapons. This plant will
stay open until 2012 when all the old Magnox nuclear stations, which
currently produce 8% of the country's electricity, are closed. All are
running at a loss but are needed to keep the lights on.
Unlike more modern stations, Magnox fuel has no
other available disposal route than reprocessing because it is clad
in magnesium that deteriorates rapidly when the used fuel is cooled
in water. The reprocessing works each employ 1,000 people.
Mr Watson's comments on the state of Sellafield
were in sharp contrast to BNFL's annual report last month which trumpeted
the achievements of both the reprocessing in Thorp and the vitrification
plant which converts the liquid waste into glass blocks for eventual
Mr Watson conceded that progress still depended
on mastering the technology of vitrification. The plant was designed
with two production lines to produce 600 glass blocks a year - enough
to make safe 50 years of highly dangerous liquid waste. These tanks
contain the highest level of radioactivity of any plant in Europe.
The vitrification plants continuously broke down,
mainly because the high levels of radiation destroyed the electrical
cables and other machinery needed to operate them.
Ten years on, a third line has been built, and the
current target is for all three lines together to produce 500 blocks
a year, enough to reduce the quantity of waste still in 50-year-old
tanks but not sufficient to allow Thorp to reach full production.
The only manufacturing left on the site when reprocessing
goes will be the plant for making nuclear fuel from plutonium and uranium
oxides. The MOX plant, opened only last year, takes plutonium from the
Thorp plant, but Mr Watson says it can remain open using some of the
75 tonnes of plutonium stored on site.
"Ideally, I would like to build a plutonium-burning
reactor and use the MOX plant to make the fuel. The rest of the site
could then be devoted to cleaning up the mess of the cold war. But these
are political decisions," he said.
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