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UK’s Magnox nuclear reprocessing plant to close, leaving world’s largest stockpile of separated civil plutonium


Plutonium Policy,  No2NuclearPower, No 132 May 2021,  Update Introduction ..The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) now expects the Magnox Reprocessing Plant at Sellafield to close this year (2021) – one year later than previously planned. The newer Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant (THORP) was shut in November 2018. Reprocessing, which has always been unnecessary, is the chemical separation of plutonium and unused uranium from spent nuclear waste fuel.

When reprocessing ends there will be around 140 tonnes of separated civil plutonium stored at Sellafield – the world’s largest stockpile of separated civil plutonium. (1) In 2008 the NDA launched a consultation on options (2) for dealing with this embarrassing stockpile – it is highly toxic, poses a permanent risk of proliferation, and will cost taxpayers around £73 million a year to store for the next century. (3) Today, after almost a decade and a half of dithering, the UK Government has failed to make any decisions, but still appears to favour the re-use option, which would probably involve transporting weapons useable plutonium or MoX fuel to reactor sites, such as Hinkley Point C and Sizewell B (and C if it is ever built) with an armed escort. 

The NDA itself said in 2008 that deciding soon could save money by removing the need to build further plutonium stores. And the Government’s refusal to admit that using the plutonium as fuel for new reactors is not only extremely technically challenging but also probably unaffordable, means funds are being spent developing both re-use and immobilisation options thus maximising the cost of plutonium disposition at the same time maximising the cost of plutonium storage. 

The story so far When reprocessing ends in 2021 there will be around 140 tonnes of separated civil plutonium stored at Sellafield. About 23 tonnes of this is foreign-owned, largely but not exclusively by Japanese utilities, and is managed under long-term contracts. (4) The UK’s stockpile of plutonium has been consolidated at Sellafield by transporting material at the former fast reactor site at Dounreay in Caithness down to Cumbria. The NDA says it has been working with the UK government to determine the right approach for putting this nuclear material beyond reach. (5) The options it is considering are all predicated on the development of a Geological Disposal Facility (GDF). Radioactive Waste Management Ltd (RWM) – a subsidiary of the NDA – is assuming that a GDF will be available to receive its first waste in the late 2040s. Then it will take around 90 years to emplace all existing waste before it can begin emplacing other materials such as immobilised plutonium or spent plutonium fuel. And there are no guarantees this timetable will be achieved. In Sweden, for example, which is perhaps one of the countries most advanced in its development of an underground repository, nuclear utilities have warned reactors may have to close early because of delays in the approval of the repository. (6) 

The Options Options considered for dealing with plutonium include using it as a fuel called Mixed Oxide Fuel (MoX) in nuclear reactors (followed by storage as spent fuel pending disposal in a Geological Disposal Facility (GDF)). 
Storage Problems Meanwhile plutonium will have to continue to be stored at Sellafield. The NDA’s 2008 report said “If a decision were taken today on a solution for the inventory, there could still be a requirement to provide storage for around 40 years.” (17) Continued long-term storage of civil plutonium is not as easy as it sounds nor is it cheap, and there are many technical challenges. ……………..

The NDA considers some of the older plutonium packages and facilities used in early production to be amongst the highest hazards on the Sellafield site. Therefore, it is aiming to gradually transfer all plutonium to a new store, the Sellafield Product and Residue Store (SPRS) which opened in 2010……..

A proportion of the plutonium canisters at Sellafield are decaying faster than the NDA anticipated. A leak from any package would lead to an ‘intolerable’ risk as defined by the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR). The NDA has therefore decided to place the canisters more at risk in extra layers of packaging until SRP is operational. ………..

  In 2014, the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee reported that the Government did not have a strategy in place for the plutonium stored at Sellafield. 7 years later, it has still not decided between the two options available to it: readying the plutonium stockpile for long-term storage in a geological disposal facility (that has yet to be constructed); or reusing it as fuel in new nuclear power stations. (25)

Conclusion The Government’s preferred option for the disposition of plutonium still appears to be to use the majority of the stockpile to fabricate Mixed Oxide Fuel for use in Light Water Reactors. This could mean transporting weapons-useable plutonium on our roads or rail network to Sizewell and Hinkley Point. These transports would need to be accompanied by armed police. 

This is despite the fact that a plutonium immobilisation plant would be required in any case to immobilise that portion of the plutonium stockpile which is not suitable for use in MoX fuel.

 Meanwhile, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority needs to continue its programme of modernising Sellafield’s plutonium storage facilities, which will involve the construction  extensions to the Sellafield Product and Residue Store (SPRS) and retreating and repacking some of the existing canisters which are considered unsuitable for storage in a modern store. This will also involve construction the Sellafield (Product and Residue store) Retreatment Plant (SRP). 

Had the Government decided soon after the publication of the NDA’s options report to immobilise the UK plutonium stockpile, as advised by environmentalists and proliferation specialists, it is likely that savings could have been made by removing the requirement for one or both of the plutonium store extensions. Indeed, if a decision is taken soon, it may still be possible to avoid the cost of building the second store extension. of two     

 In short, Government policy appears to be maximising the cost of plutonium disposition by requiring both a MoX fuel fabrication plant AND a plutonium immobilisation plant, and at the same time maximising the cost of plutonium storage. Under this policy MoX fuel containing weapons useable plutonium would have to be transported under armed guard around the country.


May 13, 2021 - Posted by | - plutonium, Reference, UK

1 Comment »

  1. A lot of time was wasted by CoRWM who dismissed out of hand many innovative ideas for dealing with high level waste because there was no working example available to study. Came down to recommendation of a DGF for which there also wasn’t a working example anywhere. It then spent its time trying to work out how it could bribe a local community to host one.
    It needs to start afresh and look at all the options.

    Comment by Dr John Laband | May 17, 2021 | Reply

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