August 2003

Sellafield shutdown ends the nuclear dream

The Guardian, August 26, 2003
By Paul Brown, environment correspondent

Original address:,3604,1029333,00.html

[Posted 26/08/2003]

£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 been changes.

"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 and liabilities.

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 disposal.

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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