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UK Stops Nuclear Reprocessing, but Sellafield Plant to Remain Open for Decades

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.

6 Comments (Open | Close)

6 Comments To "UK Stops Nuclear Reprocessing, but Sellafield Plant to Remain Open for Decades"

#1 Comment By Susan O’Donnell On January 19, 2022 @ 2:26 PM

Excellent article, thanks. To add a Canadian dimension, a company based in Saint John, Moltex, is planning to build a reprocessing unit in New Brunswick. NB Power is scoping out the site for it next to the existing Point Lepreau Nuclear Generating Station on the Bay of Fundy. To date, the federal government has handed over $56 million to this scheme, and the NB government has given the company $5 million. Many of us in New Brunswick are very concerned with this development and are active raising awareness. You can check out the Coalition for Responsible Energy Development in New Brunswick for more info on the nuclear developments here: https://crednb.ca

#2 Comment By Ben Barclay On January 19, 2022 @ 2:36 PM

This article is as valuable as “No Immediate Danger” by Rosalie Bertell. Rosalie, by the way, was the real subject of Bruce Cockburn’s song “Who Put The Bullet Hole In Peggy’s Kitchen Wall”.

I think the half life of plutonium is 250,000 years. Some isotopes anyways. That’s jobs for more than just a few decades, if there are any humans left alive to do them.

#3 Comment By Susan O’Donnell On January 19, 2022 @ 4:41 PM

Nuclear expert Gordon Edwards and as usual he has a thorough explanation with more info, here:

The Irish Sea was (before Fukushima) the most radioactively contaminated sea in the world, and it was all due to discharges through a two-mile-long underwater effluent pipe from Sellafield reprocessing operations – the longest “sewage” pipeline in the world.

All kinds of fission products as well as plutonium and other transuranics ended up in the Irish Sea through routine effluents that contained small concentrations of plutonium. No separation process is perfect, and so even if you’re looking for gold some of it will escape in the effluent. The same is true with plutonium.

The “official line” was that plutonium is such a very heavy material that it will sink to the bottom, lodge in the sediments, and never come back to bother humans or other living things. Similar “reasoning” was used many years ago regarding mercury effluents from pulp mills in Canada. Both claims are absolutely false. Nature recycles everything.

Many years ago, a BBC crew visited the west coast of Northern England and found detectable traces of plutonium in the vacuum bags of ordinary residents – from vacuum cleaners used in households and cottages along the coast. Plutonium is particularly toxic when inhaled into the lungs as a dust.

The 1976 report by the nuclear physicist Sir Brian Flowers (Nuclear Energy and the Environment, sixth report of the UK Royal Commission on the Environment) stated that a few thousandths of a gram of plutonium dust, inhaled into the lungs, would kill a human being in a matter of weeks by causing massive fibrosis of the lungs [internal asphyxiation], and inhaling an amount 1000 time smaller than that would cause lung cancer a few decades later with near-certainty.

Some of the principal findings of the Flowers Report had to do with plutonium:
(See http://www.ccnr.org/Flowers_plute.html )

#4 Comment By Pete Wilkinso On January 25, 2022 @ 5:25 AM

The legacy of reprocessing will be with future generations for centuries if not millennia. Despite successful campaigns in the 80s and 90s to reduce aplha emitting substances and Cs 137 discharges, it is estimated that at least half a tonne of plutonium remains in the Irish Sea Sellafield outfall pipeline. This is being resuspended by the action of tides, wind and sun making it available for inhalation and ingestion with uncertain health impacts. Our reprocessing legacy may well yet be not only financially but also environmentally catastrophic. The news of it being stopped is welcome but it is 70 years too late and the spectre of it beginning again for further recovery of plutonium for Mox burners is ever present given the infatuation we seem to have for all things nuclear.

#5 Comment By Jack Fanning On January 30, 2022 @ 9:33 AM

Prior to Hanford, plutonium was so rare that not even a quarter milligram existed, but a half a milligram was needed for the Manhattan Project. Oppenheimer got Dr. John Gofman and Dr. Robert Connick to irradiate a ton of uranyl nitrate in a Berkeley cyclotron day and night for 3 weeks to produce 1.2 milligrams of plutonium. Glenn Seaborg said that there was no dose of plutonium so low that it did not kill 100% of the beagles that he injected it into. We have 500 tons that no one knows what to do with, not counting what is scattered over the planet and still in the missiles and bombs. There was 10 tons in Fukushima Reactor #3 that had 2 sky-high explosions, scattering radioactive debris for hundreds of kilometers. The Soviets have been dumping radwaste in the Arctic for decades. Wonder what Rocketman is doing with his in North Korea. Who is watching Pakistan? What could go wrong if we scattered this stuff all over the globe, and let the wind and the waves and the rain spread it out for its 240,000 years of existence? What possible harm could it cause?. And yet The DOE has ordered Watts Barr to make more plutonium for a $5 billion (when have they not underestimated the cost) project at SRS to make a new set of bombs. I guess enough bombs to turn the entire planet into ash 100 times over is not enough.

#6 Comment By kim charlene Duke On June 6, 2022 @ 4:09 PM

Surely common sense should prevail concerning relying on nuclear energy. Why are so many nuclear plants built upon fault lines? Why are nuclear weapons still being made? Why have certain countries engaged in using nuclear power for space rocket propulsion? Why are countries still dumping toxic radioactive waste into the oceans? When fossil fuels run out , the future contaminated humans will be faced with buried nuclear waste that earthquakes will release so why bury the nuclear waste? We need to take a massive step back to go forward. Health is the most important aspect of earth and all life on earth. Spiritual evolution needs to be attained before technology. As usual the reverse has occurred and could well lead to extinction for all life on earth thanks to earth’s core heating up and trapped pollution in earth’s atmosphere. We have created a living nuclear time bomb that is earth herself – thx men – your generational centuries patriarchal , often misogynistic and narcissistic rule has brought us to the point of no return. All because of EGO and lack of common sense. I am asking WHY? What gene drives men to destroy so easily what source creates? WHY? Now you think artificial intelligence will solve your messes?? The technology has made things worse! Not better. So again I ask WHY and would any of you humbly apologise? It was never meant to be a man’s world but a planet for ALL species to live within the laws of nature and co creation. I just want to know WHY? Why all the suffering cause of all your blind ignorance, meddling and ego driven vanity to play God’s not only with life forms but also with universal laws of which the majority of earth men have no true understanding of for if they had , respect for ALL life on earth would be paramount and NO SLAVERY of any life form tolerated.