The Shutdown Of The Plutonium Industry In Germany
The development of fast breeders in Germany, while initiated in the
framework of a European collaboration, was ended before it reached the
commercial stage. SBK(Schnellbrüter-Kernkraftwerksgesellschaft),
a German-led consortium with participation of utilities from the Netherlands,
Belgium and the UK (which sold its share to the German utility RWE in
January 1997), started building a prototype fast-breeder 295 MWe
reactor at Kalkar on the Rhine in 1973. The project was finally abandoned
in March 1991 after DM 7 billion (US$ 4 billion) had been
invested, because neither the North-Rhein-Westphalia Land nor the Federal
governments indicated they would license it. A Dutch investor decided
in 1995 to buy and transform the reactor, which was never used and therefore
never contaminated, into an amusement park, due to be opened after the
year 2000. Recently, the planned use of the fresh Kalkar fuel in the
USA to produce tritium for the military in a nuclear power plant was
criticised as an unacceptable link between military and civil activities.
A few years before, in 1985, a reactor similar to the 1,200 MWe
Superphénix reactor in France (in which SBK holds a 16% share),
which had been projected by German and other European electricity utilities,
was also definitively abandoned because it had become clear that the
breeder line would never be competitive with conventional nuclear power
The WAK reprocessing plant at Karlsruhe's (Nuclear) Research Center
was a pilot plant operated from 1971 to 1990. It did not operate as
planned and reprocessed only some 208 tonnes of spent fuel during that
time. The construction of a commercial-size reprocessing plant got underway
at the beginning of the 1980s at the Bavarian Wackersdorf site. After
spending DM 2.6 billion (about US$ 1.5 billion), the utilities
abandoned the project in 1989. Once the breeder line was given up, there
was no longer any reason for investing in large plutonium production
facilities, in particular given the fact that the plants then under
construction at La Hague and Sellafield would have significant excess
capacity after the turn of the century. At the same time, the large
energy holding VEBA projected to take a direct share of COGEMA, a move
which was first backed by both French and German governments, but which
did not succeed. One of the reasons for the failure was that some top
officials thought it would be impossible for a German company to get
a share of an operator of military nuclear facilities. Instead, COGEMA
allocated a share of the UP3 plant's capacity after the year 2000. The
abandonment of the German plant was a stroke of luck for the French
and British plants, towards which the German utilities turned themselves.
However, the reprocessing agreements signed for the period after the
turn of the century contain a political clause allowing the Germans
to withdraw from the undertaking with modest penalties.
MOX fuel, containing both uranium and plutonium oxides, was experimented
with rather early in German reactors. A demonstration programme was
started in 1966, and the first commercial plant to be fuelled with MOX
was the Obrigheim PWR which received MOX fuel in 1972. During 1997,
only five plants were partly fuelled with MOX fuel out of the 12 which
are licensed for such use.
Until 1990, German utilities were waiting for the Siemens commercial
MOX manufacturing plant at Hanau (nominal throughput 120 tonnes/year),
which was to replace a demonstration plant on the same site (35 tonnes/year).
After an accident during which three workers were contaminated with
plutonium oxide powder, the demonstration plant was shut down and the
licensing procedure for the commercial plant was stalled. As for reprocessing
services, the German utilities have to rely entirely upon foreign companies
to provide them with MOX fuel. In an unprecedented move, the French
COGEMA has nominated the former Hanau MOX manager Jürgen Krellmann
from Siemens as director of the MOX manufacturing plant at Cadarache
in the south of France. In order to satisfy Siemens clients, COGEMA
now manufactures MOX in France according to Siemens' technical specifications.
According to the German Atomic Act (Atomgesetz), operating licence
of nuclear power plants must specify a spent nuclear fuel management
scheme six years ahead. Until an amendment in July 1994, the German
Atomic Act required reprocessing spent fuel if reprocessing was "justified
on technical and economic grounds".For a long time, utilities read
this to mean that the Act required the spent fuel to be reprocessed.
They thus signed reprocessing contracts with the French COGEMA (4,755
tonnes plus about 2,000 tonnes to be reprocessed after year 2000) and
the British BNFL (969 tonnes plus 690 tonnes to be reprocessed after
year 2000). German utilities are the largest foreign customer of COGEMA.
Spent fuel from the Russian-designed VVERs in the former GDR is stored
in storage ponds and no reprocessing for this spent fuel is planned.
The July 1994 amendment states that direct disposal and reprocessing
are equally acceptable options for spent fuel management. Since then
some utilities have disengaged themselves from their commitments to
foreign reprocessors, and are not willing to sign further reprocessing
contracts. This situation has pushed COGEMA and BNFL to offer better
deals to German utilities (cheaper prices, "reprocessing or storage"
or "reprocessing and MOX manufacturing" contracts, less waste
to be returned...). Recently, the federal government stated it planned
to tax the reserves made by utilities to pay for reprocessing costs.
Utilities have protested that this discriminated against the reprocessing
solution for spent fuel. One thing is for sure: it will put even more
pressure on the French and British plutonium producers.
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