Seventy years after the United Kingdom first began extracting plutonium from spent uranium fuel to make nuclear weapons, the industry is finally calling a halt to reprocessing, leaving the country with 120 tons of the metal, the biggest stockpile in the world. However, the government has no idea what to do with it.
Having spent hundreds of billions of pounds producing plutonium in a series of plants at Sellafield in the Lake District, the UK policy is to store it indefinitely—or until it can come up with a better idea. There is also 90,000 tons of less dangerous depleted uranium in warehouses in the UK, also without an end use.
Plans to use plutonium in fast breeder reactors and then mixed with uranium as a fuel for existing fission reactors have long ago been abandoned as too expensive, unworkable, or sometimes both. Even burning plutonium as a fuel, while technically possible, is very costly.
The closing of the last reprocessing plant, as with all nuclear endeavours, does not mean the end of the industry, in fact it will take at least another century to dismantle the many buildings and clean up the waste. In the meantime, it is costing £3 billion a year to keep the site safe.
Perhaps one of the strangest aspects of this story to outside observers is that, apart from a minority of anti-nuclear campaigners, this plutonium factory in one of prettiest parts of England hardly ever gets discussed or mentioned by the UK’s two main political parties. Neither has ever objected to what seems on paper to be a colossal waste of money.
The secret of this silence is that the parliamentary seats in the Lake District are all politically on a knife-edge. No candidate for either Conservative or Labour can afford to be anti-nuclear, otherwise the seat would certainly go to the opposition party.
The story of Sellafield matters, however, particularly to countries like Japan, which is poised to open its own reprocessing works at Rokkasho, Aomori in September. Strangely, too, this is one of Japan’s most scenic areas.
This plan is particularly controversial in a country that is the only one so far to have had nuclear bombs used against it. Like Britain, Japan has no obvious outlet for the plutonium it will produce, except nuclear weapons and fast breeder reactors, this last a technology Japan has already tried and has ended in failure. It also seems unnecessary because Japan already owns a plutonium stockpile of several tonnes from sending spent fuel to the UK to be reprocessed.
While there is much more opposition in Japan, including from the influential New Diplomacy Initiative, there is local support for the works because politicians see employment opportunities. But there is also international concern about the potential spread of nuclear weapon capability to Japan and beyond.
In Britain, reprocessing began in 1952 entirely as a military endeavour. The idea was to make hydrogen bombs so Britain could keep up with the United States and Russia in the nuclear arms race.
A much larger plant opened in 1964, and it is this one that is finally due to close this year. It had a nominal capacity to reprocess 1,500 tonnes of spent fuel a year for both military and civilian purposes. It reprocessed fuel from the UK’s 26 Magnox, Italy’s Latina, and Japan’s Tokai Magnox nuclear reactors. It has reprocessed 45,000 tonnes so far and has 318 more to go.
From its inception, the reprocessing works was a highly polluting plant, discharging contaminated water into the Irish Sea. Plutonium, cesium, and other radionuclides were sent out to sea in a mile-long pipeline. Radioactivity was picked up in shellfish in Ireland, Norway, and Denmark, and in local seafood that had to be tested regularly to see if the radioactive load they carried made them too dangerous to eat. Local people were advised to keep their consumption of shellfish low. These discharges have now been considerably cleaned up.
A third “recycling” project, the Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant (THORP), was planned in 1977, expected to capitalize on the then projected expansion of nuclear power and to provide plutonium and uranium for newer reactors, and for the still-hoped-for fast breeder reactor programme. Government approval was given nine years later, by which time contracts for reprocessing had been made with a number of foreign companies. The new plant’s biggest customer was Japan.
So in the end, reprocessing became a commercial venture rather than producing anything useful. Nine countries sent spent fuel to Sellafield to have plutonium and uranium extracted for reuse and paid a great deal of money to do so. In reality, very little of either metal has ever been used because mixed oxide fuels were too expensive, and fast breeder reactors could never be scaled up sufficiently to be economic.
The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA), the UK government body now charged with keeping Sellafield safe and ultimately dismantling it, still makes £820 million (US$1.16 billion) a year storing spent fuel, plutonium, uranium, and nuclear waste for foreign governments and the UK’s Ministry of Defence. This latter waste includes the radioactive material from powering nuclear submarines and manufacturing bombs and warheads. The rest of the £3.345 billion (US$4.570) budget comes from the UK taxpayer.
In its current plan, the NDA hopes to have disposed of all spent fuel by 2125—103 years hence. All buildings will be demolished or reused by 2133.
Although these targets seem a long way off, some of the interim ones are already unlikely. The documents say the NDA hopes to establish a deep depository for high-level waste by 2040—but the UK government has been looking for a site since 1980, and every one “found” has so far been rejected. It has just started the search all over again, offering lots of financial incentives to local communities to consider the idea.
Whatever happens, one thing is certain—most of the 11,000 people currently employed at Sellafield will still have jobs for decades to come.