The UK & Ireland Nuclear Free Local Authorities (NFLA) publishes today on its website an expert overview of national plutonium policy and recent concerns over the potential for plutonium remobilisation in the Irish Sea. (1)
The report was developed by the NFLA Policy Advisor, Pete Roche, and was first published on the website ‘No2nuclearpower.org.uk’. (2) Recent research on this area was also presented by Pete to the most recent meetings of the NFLA English Forum and NFLA All Ireland Sustainable Energy Forum. (3)
The report notes that the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) expects the Magnox Reprocessing Plant at Sellafield to close this year (2021) – one year later than previously planned. This follows on from the closure of the Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant (THORP) in November 2018. Reprocessing, which NFLA has always argued has been completely 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. Since 2008, the NDA has been discussing how to deal with this embarrassment, given that 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) 13 years later, after much 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 Mixed Oxide Fuel (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 report looks at this sorry saga and the options for dealing with this stockpile. NFLA believe that the plutonium should be immobilised and stored safely. NDA is continuing to investigate how immobilisation and reuse might be implemented, arguing that using the material as MOX fuel in light water reactors is the most mature option from a technical and licensing perspective. The UK government says it can only make a decision when it can be underpinned with sufficient evidence.
The NFLA report concludes that, had the UK government decided soon after the publication of the NDA’s options report to immobilise the UK plutonium stockpile, as we and many environmentalists and proliferation specialists have advised, 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.
Instead, 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.
The NFLA report also highlights its concerns that plutonium particles dumped in the Irish Sea from Sellafield could remobilise. Low-level aqueous radioactive waste has been discharged from the Sellafield site into the Irish Sea for more than 50 years.
Unfortunately, it has since emerged that a proportion of such sediment associated radioactivity has remobilised, and is being actively transported around the Irish Sea, while the remainder is temporarily “sequestered” in the seabed but subject to any future disturbance mechanisms such as storm, wave and seismic activity. In addition, a proportion of dissolved nuclides did not necessarily remain dissolved in liquid form in the water column, but it could become incorporated into organic particles and deposited into sedimentary environments where they could be temporarily sequestered, but subsequently recycled back into the environment by dredging, trawling storm and seismic activity.
For NFLA, there remains real concern that this ‘Sellafield Mudpatch’ in the Irish Sea could be disturbed if either a deep-underground coal mine is developed off the coast of Cumbria, or similarly if a deep-underground radioactive waste repository is built under the Irish Sea again off the Cumbrian coast. It calls for the NDA and Radioactive Waste Management (RWM) to study these issues urgently before any such development is ever considered to be developed.
NFLA Steering Committee Chair Councillor David Blackburn said:
“This report on the NFLA policy outlines one of the most embarrassing and perplexing elements of UK nuclear policy – what to do with its world record plutonium stockpile. The NFLA report highlights there are no easy answers, but delays on pursuing sensible immobilisation options have cost money and lead to further storage challenge. This report also highlights ongoing scientific and environmental alarm about building deep-underground facilities off the Cumbria coast that could remobilise plutonium and other dangerous particles that lie on the Irish Sea. Real caution and detailed research are required before any decisions are made. I urge councillors and council waste management officers to reads this important report.”
Ends – for more information please contact Sean Morris, NFLA Secretary, on 07771 930196.
Notes to Editors:
(1) NFLA Radioactive Waste Policy Briefing 88, Plutonium policy update is attached with this media release and will be placed on the NFLA website https://www.nuclearpolicy.info.
(2) An extensive area of research and a daily energy news service can be found at https://www.no2nuclearpower.org.uk