Third quarter of 2001

Reprocessing option ruled out at Dounreay

"A first dent in the belief in the myth of reprocessing" in the UK, says MP Paul Flynn

WISE-Paris, 29 July 2001

[Posted 30/07/2001]

On 18 July 2001, the new UK Energy Minister, Brian Wilson, took a milestone decision by ruling out reprocessing as an option to deal with remaining nuclear fuel at Dounreay, in Scotland. Mr. Wilson's decision was welcomed by the Highlands Council and by 20 Members of Parliament (MP) who signed the Early Day Motion (EDM) (1) introduced by Paul Flynn (Labour Party), the day the decision was made public. The EDM invited "the Energy Minister to include a full review of reprocessing at Sellafield in the current energy policy review".

In an interview with Plutonium Investigation, Mr. Flynn declared that this was a "splendid step forward", explaining that it was "a first dent in the belief in the myth of reprocessing", as a "necessary and beneficial activity" in the UK. (2)

The Dounreay site was developed from 1955 onwards, on the north coast of Scotland, for the development of experimental fast reactors. (3) The research program ended in 1994 and the government committed itself to decommission the site safely, securely, and in an environmentally acceptable way. The original intention was to reprocess remaining fuel on site. D1206, the reprocessing facility, had already reprocessed the majority of this fuel, but it was closed in 1996 when a leak of radioactive materials caused the plant to stop. Two years later, the government announced the end of commercial reprocessing at Dounreay.

The remaining 109 tons of fuels mainly result from work undertaken by the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA)  (4) during the fast reactor development program. About one-fourth of this total - 24.7 tons - contains significant quantities of plutonium. (5)

"Three options were identified in the public consultation" initiated by the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) in April 2000: " Reprocessing at Dounreay, reprocessing at Dounreay and Sellafield, and storage… The decision not to reprocess the fuel means (D1206) will join the list of facilities to be decommissioned sooner rather than later". (6)

According to DTI, no clear preference emerged from the public consultation. The main criterion behind Mr. Wilson's decision was the "Best Practicable Environmental Option" (BPEO), (7) that included also technical features and financial costs ("practicable" factors). For the Energy Minister, it was "clear that refurbishing the reprocessing facilities at Dounreay risks diverting valuable resources from the restoration of the site". The total cost of decommissioning Dounreay is estimated at 4 billion over 50 to 60 years. (8)

Approximately 1,200 people work at Dounreay, mainly within the framework of the site decommissioning plan. (9) About 30 million per year go into the local economy as wages and salaries. "UKAEA is currently contributing 61 million a year to the local economy of Caithness and Sutherland… Permanent staffing levels on the site (UKAEA plus contractors) are expected to rise above 2000 and be maintained at that level for several years. In addition, there will be substantial employment created in the construction of new plants for treating legacies of waste". (10)


  1. Early Day Motion (EDM) is a notice of motion given by Members "to draw attention to an issue, and to elicit support for it by the means of inviting other Members to add their signatures to the motion",
  2. Paul Flynn, telephone interview, 27 July 2001
  3. The reactors built on the site were: the Dounreay Fast Reactor (DFR), Prototype Fast Reactor (PFR) and the Dounreay Materials Test Reactor (DMTR), all of which are now closed,
  4. UKAEA was established in 1954 to implement the UK nuclear energy program. Today, it is charged with managing the decommissioning of the nuclear reactors and other radioactive facilities, on five sites in the UK
  5. Fissile material, requiring special treatment to ensure their safety and security for time scales lasting up to tens of thousands of years
  6. UKAEA, 27 July 2001, e-mail to WISE-Paris
  7. Private communication, Communication office, Department of Trade and Industry, 26 July 2001
  8. UKAEA, 27 July 2001, e-mail to WISE-Paris
  9. Main operating companies at Dounreay: AEA Technology (main tenant on the site) operates commercial activities including decommissioning and waste handling process, Johnson Controls and British Nuclear Fuel Ltd,
  10. UKAEA, 27 July 2001, e-mail to WISE-Paris

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