United Kingdom- Plutonium Investigation n°3

United Kingdom: The Plutonium Glut

The United Kingdom has been a key country for the plutonium industry. Starting from the late 1940s, the UK developed an experimental and demonstration complex with reprocessing plants, fast-breeder reactors, and plutonium fuel fabrication. Only then, after completing a formidable infrastructure for producing nuclear weapons did the UK develop industrial facilities, sometimes fully shared with the military, as at Sellafield, for the reprocessing of spent fuel. However, it seems as if the UK today is in a plutonium dead-end: it owns the largest stockpile of separated plutonium in the world, but does not have any destination for this material.

Another important feature of the British nuclear electricity industry is due to the institutional reorganisation of the sector. The nuclear power companies are undergoing - with great difficulties - a privatisation process, some time after the rest of the electricity generating sector. The British Government has clearly stated that it will not finance the construction of new nuclear power generating capacity, and no private electricity utility seems willing to make such investment.

About one quarter of the British electricity is generated by nuclear power plants. In 1997, the 35 operating reactors generated 97.7 TWh. All but one of the reactors are "graphite-gas", which means that the nuclear reaction moderator is graphite, and the reactor coolant is gas. Twenty of these reactors, called Magnox, use metallic fuel based on natural uranium. Fourteen other reactors, called Advanced Gas Reactors (AGR), use metallic fuel based on enriched uranium. Neither of these reactor types can use MOX fuel.

The last reactor, which is also the most recent one, is the only British pressurised water reactor (PWR). This plant has not been licensed to use MOX fuel.

There are at the moment three nuclear power plant operators: Magnox Electric, which operates twelve Magnox units, BNFL, which operates eight Magnox units (all of which were optimised for and dedicated to military nuclear materials production, plutonium at Calder Hall on the Sellafield site and tritium at Chapel Cross in the south of Scotland), and British Energy, which operates all Advanced Gas Reactors (AGR), as well as the sole Sizewell-B pressurised water reactor (PWR). In December 1997, the Government announced it had decided to merge parts of the two operators of Magnox reactors in order to constitute one organisation which would also operate the reprocessing of the Magnox reactor fuel at the B-205 reprocessing plant at Sellafield.

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