Switzerland - Plutonium Investigation n°8

Incoherence with reprocessing figures

The official figures on reprocessing contracts of Swiss utilities with the British and French reprocessing companies are not all coherent. According to documents from COGEMA, Swiss utilities signed the first contracts, for reprocessing at the old UP2 plant at La Hague, for a quantity of 132 tonnes. This fuel has already been reprocessed. A further reprocessing contract corresponds to 510 tonnes to be reprocessed at the UP3 plant, of which 229 tonnes had been reprocessed as of 1 March 1998. According to BNFL, Swiss utilities signed reprocessing contracts with the British reprocessing company for the reprocessing of 422 (initially 369/370, then 390) tonnes at the THORP plant at Sellafield. We asked BNFL how much Swiss spent fuel had been reprocessed, but BNFL considers this information to be under commercial secrecy.

Totalling these figures, the quantity of Swiss spent fuel to be reprocessed, according to the industry figures, is thus 1,064 tonnes. However, official information from representatives of the Swiss government does not coincide with this figure. According to the Swiss Permanent Mission to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna, the first contracts with COGEMA correspond to 147 tonnes (15 tonnes higher than the industry figure), while the further contracts with COGEMA and BNFL would correspond to 880 tonnes . The first figure does not coincide with HSK/BEW/BFE figures (132 tonnes). The total quantity of spent fuel to be reprocessed would thus be 1,027 tonnes (37 tonnes shorter than the industry figure). Independent sources have put the figure to 1,097 tonnes*.

The figure concerning the plutonium content in spent fuel is also subject to caution. This aspect is not to be minimised, since the estimate of plutonium produced at the reprocessing plants is necessary to assess the stockpile of surplus plutonium, and therefore the real cost of the plutonium programme. While the industry generally gives a figure close to 1% for the total plutonium content in spent fuel, this figure varies widely with the initial enrichment of fresh uranium fuel and the burn-up rate of spent fuel, the Swiss representation in Vienna states that "about 5.7 tonnes of [fissile] plutonium" will result from the reprocessing of the 1,027 tonnes of spent fuel. This corresponds to a rather low total plutonium content of 0.7% in spent fuel (considering an average 75% fissile plutonium in the total plutonium). The figure generally given to the public are total plutonium figures. Publishing fissile plutonium figures disables precise comparisons to be made with other plutonium programmes.

* For a detailed analysis on the Swiss reprocessing policy, German language readers see T.Flüeler, et al. "Die Wiederaufarbeitung von abgebrannten Brennelementen aus schweizerischen Atomkraftwerken", CAN Anti Atom Koalition, Zürich, September 1997.

Back to Editorial
Back to contents