Netherlands - Plutonium Investigation n°11

Reprocessing Policy: No Use for Plutonium

Both Dutch utilities operating nuclear power plants have had reprocessing programmes for their spent fuel, to be carried out in Belgium, France and the UK.

At first, the Netherlands actively participated in the Eurochemic reprocessing programme, for the operation of a plant at Dessel/Mol in Belgium, which started operation in 1957 and ended in 1974 when the plant was mothballed. The process of decommissioning the plant began in 1990 and is planned to last until 2005. It is not clear yet how the plutonium contaminated materials (PCM) will be managed in Belgium, or whether this waste will be sent back to the Dutch contractors. The electricity utility GKN, which operated the Dodewaard reactor until its shut-down, had 8.5 tonnes of spent fuel reprocessed in the plant.

GKN also signed a 53-tonnes-reprocessing contract with the British BNFL for other Dodewaard spent fuel. BNFL's THORP plant at Sellafield, which is planned to reprocess the fuel, has started operations in 1994 but has not yet reached nominal annual throughput. The Dutch contract amounts to only 1% of THORP's 'baseload' capacity. The plant has been shut down temporarily on numerous occasions since decommissionng, most recently in December 1998. The future reprocessing plans for different batches of foreign spent fuel at THORP is thus unclear. The future parliamentary debate is planned to decide on the approval of an extending of the THORP contract for a further 4.5 tonnes of spent fuel.

Starting in the 1970s, the electricity utility EPZ, formerly called PZEM, which operates the Borssele reactor, signed three reprocessing contracts with the French company COGEMA which operates the La Hague (Normandy) reprocessing plants. The first contract concerns spent fuel which was reprocessed at the UP2 reprocessing plant before 1990. This contract corresponds to 85 tonnes of spent fuel, which produced 620 kg of plutonium (the contract originally concerned only 79 tonnes but 6 tonnes of 'defective' fuel were reprocessed because it was difficult to manage). The second and third contracts concern fuel to be reprocessed at the UP3 plant. The second contract was also originally signed in the 1970s and corresponds to 140 tonnes of spent fuel which were reprocessed at the UP3 plant at La Hague from 1990 to 1998. According to WISE-Paris estimates, this produced about one tonne of separated plutonium. The third contract corresponds to 156 tonnes of spent fuel. According to the agreement, this spent fuel should be reprocessed during the 2000-2010 period. WISE-Paris estimates that this spent fuel should produce close to 1.1 tonnes plutonium if reprocessed. EPZ has signed this contract in order to have reprocessing contracts covering all the spent fuel due to be discharged by the plant until its final shut-down. Due to actions by environmental groups in the Netherlands, spent fuel transports from Borssele to La Hague were postponed in November 1996. More recently, some Belgian cities objected to have the transports pass by on their roads. In 1998, the contamination scandal of spent fuel transports in Europe (See Plutonium Investigation no. 6-7) perpetuated the postponement of the spent fuel transport. Therefore it is highly probable that the spent fuel corresponding to the third reprocessing contract with COGEMA (156 tonnes to be reprocessed at the UP3 plant during the 2000-2010 period) is still at the Borssele plant. Some of it is and will also still being used in the reactor core since the reactor has not yet been shut down. Of the other countries which have had their spent fuel reprocessed, only a few are planning a continued use for the corresponding plutonium which is separated. Different countries, among which is France, are currently using MOX fuel - a mixture of plutonium and uranium oxides - in a tentative way to slow down the increase, and later (hopefully) diminish, their plutonium stockpiles. However, because of costs and proliferation considerations, MOX fuel is not economic and is not largely used. MOX use is the only non-military use for the plutonium, and the only justification to the continuation of reprocessing. The Netherlands however as a result of its imminent plan to shut down its only operating reactor, will never therefore use MOX fuel. The costly reprocessing of Dutch spent fuel has generated a stockpile of separated plutonium, which no other country will want to put to use. The only possible management strategy for this plutonium is to store it, which needs to take into consideration the related nuclear proliferation risks: for long term storage, the nuclear industry is thinking mixing the plutonium with high-level radioactive waste. This is a bit like putting back together the different components of the spent fuel, or reprocessing in reverse, "anti-reprocessing", as it was called by Frank von Hippel, a US analyst from Princeton University or "détraitement" ("deprocessing"), a name given by Daniel Cohn-Bendit. The Government of the Netherlands have published some figures on the Dutch plutonium stockpile. A WISE-Paris estimate of the plutonium inventory in the Figures of the Month section (see p.7) shows that the Netherlands have had separated at least 1,670 kg plutonium, of which 670 kg have already been used to fabricate nuclear fuel for European fast-breeder reactors.

The figures leave many questions unanswered. WISE-Paris has not been able to discover much information on the state of this material. It is unclear whether it has been irradiated, or if it will be reprocessed. France plans that COGEMA will reprocess the nuclear fuel, both irradiated and fresh fuel, from Superphenix. What would be done with separated plutonium recovered, inluding that of Dutch ownership and origin, is open to speculation. Why would the Netherland's nuclear industry and Government prefer the spent fuel to be reprocessed, which would separate out plutonium and which would be more difficult and costly to manage than the spent fuel itself in the first place? This is an issue that is certain to engage Dutch Parliamentarians in the upcoming debate. They could ensure the avoidance of the unnecessary reprocessing of the 156 tonnes, the 53 to 57.5 tonnes of spent fuel which are still to be reprocessed respectively at the COGEMA La Hague and BNFL THORP plants and try to prevent breeder fuel processing.

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