Third quarter of 1999

Open Letter to Birgitta Dahl, Speaker of the Swedish Parliament

By Mycle Schneider, Director of WISE-Paris, Paris, 7 July 1999

[Posted 07/07/1999]

Honorable Madame Speaker, Dear Birgitta Dahl,

On 8 December 1997, I told you - over lunch - that the Swedish utility OKG had gone ahead with the separation of several hundred kilograms of plutonium at the UK Sellafield site. You were stunned. Obviously you had not been aware of the project and, at first, did not even want to believe me.

Interviewed only hours earlier, the OKG fuel manager had flatly declared to me that his company had the license for reprocessing the fuel since it had signed the contract almost 30 years ago and did not need to ask for permission "each time the government changes".

An SKI official told me today that "the government did not have the choice to say no". Is that so? If yes, it seems that the nuclear industry continues to make its own rules. If not, I still don’t understand why the government — and other influential political forces in Sweden - did not prevent the separation of plutonium in the first place.

The first Article of the Swedish Constitution reads "all public power in Sweden proceeds from the people", as you recalled in your speech at the Right Livelihood Award ceremony 1997, a few hours after we had lunch. Where has been the "important role of parliaments", which you focused on in your talks with Boris Yeltsin at the time, in the case of the Swedish plutonium issue?

In the 1980s you were instrumental in putting together Sweden's spent fuel management policy based on direct storage rather than the development of a plutonium economy. When I expressed my concern to you over the OKG plan to return the plutonium in the form of MOX fuel and to use it in Swedish reactors, you told me that while the plutonium separation had happened outside the country — in a way beyond Swedish direct control - this would be quite different if OKG intended to bring the fuel back to the country. You made it very clear that you intended to make your voice being heard on the issue.

Now OKG has made a formal application into MOX fuel use at its reactor site. Over 830 kg of plutonium shall be fabricated into MOX fuel and then be introduced into one of the OKG reactors. (Strangely enough, OKG’s fuel manager had told me in December 1997, that the amount of plutonium recovered from the reprocessing at Sellafield was limited to about 600 kg).

In parallel, SVAFO AB submitted an application for the reprocessing, also at Sellafield, of 5 tons of spent fuel from the R1 reactor. The reprocessing of that material would lead to the separation of about 1.2 kg of excellent weapon plutonium (more than 97% Pu-239, so called super grade plutonium). The plan is to mix the plutonium with the Oskarshamn plutonium and send it back in the form of MOX fuel. The MOX should then be introduced into Oskarshamn after 2003.

A few days ago SKI made a positive recommendation concerning both of the projects to the government. According to SKI, the application for the R1 fuel is with the Foreign Minister, the one concerning the OKG fuel with the Environment Minister. SKI representatives refused to make any political statement on their decision, arguing that they had only evaluated the safety case of the plans.

In my speech of acceptance of the Right Livelihood Award at the Swedish Parliament — "which could be called the cradle of Swedish democracy", as you reminded the audience - in December 1997, I declared in your presence: "Let me take this opportunity to urge the Swedish Parliament and the Swedish government to take appropriate action, now, to prevent at least the implementation of a Swedish MOX plan. Sweden could still be trend-setting again if it did firmly decide on a scheme which provides for conditioning and storage of its plutonium as radioactive waste."

I have not been heard as it turns out. I would be extremely interested to find out why not. Aware of the problem, why did your powerful influential voice remain silent?

However, it is not too late. It is obvious that the return of plutonium fuel into Sweden is a highly political matter bypassing by far the technical issues involved. And bypassing by far national borders. Swedish politicians have shown great sensitivity in the past to their international influence on important matters of human rights, as well as environmental and political concerns.

Yes, there are technical arguments in favor of reprocessing of the R1 fuel. It has aluminum cladding, the fuel is in bad condition, etc. Yes, it is the easiest option to deal with the now separated plutonium and go for MOX fuel. But any of those problems can be solved or circumvented. Sweden did not hesitate to swap some of its spent fuel which was under a reprocessing contract for spent MOX fuel. It is clear that therefore some Swedish fuel will be or has been reprocessed on behalf of German utilities. Also most of the Swedish spent fuel reprocessing contracts have been only subcontracted to other utilities. Intriguingly, the Swedish utility representatives have continued to sit in COGEMA’s "base load customer" meetings.

Sweden, under your leadership, has gone onto a no-plutonium path for good reasons. Plutonium is a highly radiotoxic substance, it is highly proliferating and, as a consequence, it should be treated as waste. Any use of the material is the wrong political signal giving the illusion of its potential acceptance.

Why not taking back the unreprocessed R1 fuel and store it until there is a final storage scheme or, at least, swap it against other equivalent spent fuel (see the German MOX precedent)?

Why not having the OKG plutonium mixed with high level waste and have it declared waste for final disposal? The differences between spent MOX fuel in a final repository as compared to spent LWR fuel might be bigger than the difference of plutonium-bearing vitrified high level waste storage and spent LWR fuel storage.

SKI argues that first, there is no Swedish high level vitrified waste and second, there won’t be any in future since OKG has no obligation to take back the waste from the reprocessing of its spent fuel at Sellafield. This is certainly a commercially correct but ethically highly questionable position since it has been established as international ethical principle that the waste producer shall be responsible of the waste management and disposal.

There is also the technical possibility of introducing MOX type pellets into fuel pins and insert those into the general spent fuel storage scheme.

Where is the technical, political, economic and environmental evaluation of all those alternatives to a highly questionable strategy presented by the operators?

I spent 15 years of my life working on plutonium issues. The decisions to be taken are not of secondary importance. This is a very crucial moment for the future of the plutonium economy:

The French State electricity utility EDF has not signed up yet for a follow up reprocessing contract after year 2001, in spite of severe pressure of the plutonium company COGEMA.

The UK government has not yet given the go-ahead for the start-up of the completed Sellafield MOX Plant (SMP). The plant is highly controversial.

The German government has not yet authorised to resume the spent fuel shipments to La Hague and Sellafield since WISE-Paris revealed a major scandal of shipment cask contamination in May 1998.

The Japanese utilities are about to embark on a highly controversial, major MOX utilisation program.

It would be naïve to imagine that Sweden could take a "pro-plutonium" decision on the grounds that it only covers a "limited" amount of material and represents the "easy" solution. Without a doubt, the plutonium industry will not hesitate to exploit any decision in that direction.

On the other hand, the Swedish government’s decision to direct the Swedish plutonium to the nuclear waste stream would be a strong signal to abandon further plutonium separation and use, where ever.

I’m looking forward to your response. But foremost I’m hoping that the Swedish democratic forces will not take the nuclear industry plans as a new and fatal fait accompli. The issues at stake are worth the trouble.

Thank you for your attention to this worthy problem.

With my very best regards,

Mycle Schneider
Director of WISE-Paris

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