Tag Archives: Plutonium

UK plutonium stockpile is a costly headache

This story is a part of Covering Climate Now’s week of coverage focused on Climate Solutions, to mark the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. Covering Climate Now is a global journalism collaboration committed to strengthening coverage of the climate story.

 

The end of reprocessing spent nuclear fuel has left an expensive UK plutonium stockpile with no peaceful use.

LONDON, 23 April, 2020 − For 70 years Britain has been dissolving spent nuclear fuel in acid, separating the plutonium and uranium it contains and stockpiling the plutonium in the hope of finding some peaceful use for it, to no avail: all it has to show today is a UK plutonium stockpile.

To comply with its international obligations not to discharge any more liquid radioactive waste into the Irish Sea, the United Kingdom government agreed more than 20 years ago under the Ospar Convention on the protection of the north-east Atlantic to shut its nuclear fuel reprocessing works at Sellafield in northwestern England at the end of this year.

As well as 139 tonnes of plutonium, which has to be both carefully stored to prevent a nuclear chain reaction and protected by armed guards as well, to avoid terrorist attack, there are thousands of tonnes of depleted uranium at Sellafield.

The reprocessing plant shut down prematurely as a result of a Covid-19 outbreak among its employees, and most of the 11,500 workers there have been sent home, leaving a skeleton staff to keep the site safe. Whether the plant will be restarted after the epidemic is unknown.

Fewer than half Sellafield’s workers are involved in reprocessing. Most are engaged in cleaning up after decades of nuclear energy generation and related experiments. There are 200 buildings at the massive site, many of them disused. It costs British taxpayers around £2.3 billion (US$2.8bn) a year to run Sellafield and keep it safe.

Solution needed soon

While the British government has been reluctant to make any decision on what to do about its stockpiled plutonium and uranium, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has expressed alarm about the danger it poses.

“The United Kingdom has to find a solution for its plutonium stockpile, and quickly,” its report says.

The scientists point out that there is enough plutonium to make hundreds of thousands of nuclear weapons, and that it is a permanent proliferation risk. The annual cost of £73m to keep the plutonium safe is dwarfed by the much larger cost of trying to make safe the whole site with its thousands of tonnes of nuclear waste.

The Bulletin reports that the original reason for the reprocessing works was to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons. The UK supplied the US at times, as well as producing its own weapons. A 2014 agreement between the British and US governments gives an outline of the nuclear links which then existed between them.

“The British government, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, and reactor operators in general should accept that separated plutonium is a burden, not a resource”

For decades there were also plans to use plutonium in fast breeder reactors and to blend it with uranium to make Mixed Oxide Fuel (MOX) .

This was a time when governments believed that the world’s supply of uranium would run out and that re-using it with plutonium would be a way of generating large amounts of electricity, as a way to avoid burning fossil fuels and as part of the solution to climate change.

MOX was one possible fuel. Using recycled plutonium in fast breeder reactors was another possibility. And a third option was new-style reactors that burned plutonium, theoretically possible but never built.

But uranium did not run out, and MOX did not prove economic. It and the new reactors proved so technically difficult they were abandoned.

Despite these setbacks, successive British governments have continued reprocessing, always refusing to class plutonium as a waste, while still exploring ways of using it in some kind of new reactor. This is likely to remain the official position even after reprocessing ends in December.

The UK’s Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, the agency that runs Sellafield, faced by this indecision, continues to store the plutonium behind three barbed-wire barricades, guarded by the only armed civilian police force in the country.

Here to stay?

One of the tricky political problems is that 23 tonnes of the plutonium is owned by Japan, which sent its spent fuel to be reprocessed at Sellafield but is unable to use the recycled material, which cannot be returned to Japan in its current state because of nuclear proliferation concerns.

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has examined all the potential options suggested to put the 139 tonnes of plutonium to some useful peaceful purpose (in other words, to create energy), but concludes that none of them is viable.

It says: “The British government, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, and reactor operators in general should accept that separated plutonium is a burden, not a resource, and authority should again take a closer look at immobilisation options.”

Among the solutions that have been suggested is to mix the plutonium with ceramics to immobilise and stabilise it, so that it can be safely stored or disposed of, not used for weapons. The government has so far rejected that option. − Climate News Network

This story is a part of Covering Climate Now’s week of coverage focused on Climate Solutions, to mark the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. Covering Climate Now is a global journalism collaboration committed to strengthening coverage of the climate story.

 

The end of reprocessing spent nuclear fuel has left an expensive UK plutonium stockpile with no peaceful use.

LONDON, 23 April, 2020 − For 70 years Britain has been dissolving spent nuclear fuel in acid, separating the plutonium and uranium it contains and stockpiling the plutonium in the hope of finding some peaceful use for it, to no avail: all it has to show today is a UK plutonium stockpile.

To comply with its international obligations not to discharge any more liquid radioactive waste into the Irish Sea, the United Kingdom government agreed more than 20 years ago under the Ospar Convention on the protection of the north-east Atlantic to shut its nuclear fuel reprocessing works at Sellafield in northwestern England at the end of this year.

As well as 139 tonnes of plutonium, which has to be both carefully stored to prevent a nuclear chain reaction and protected by armed guards as well, to avoid terrorist attack, there are thousands of tonnes of depleted uranium at Sellafield.

The reprocessing plant shut down prematurely as a result of a Covid-19 outbreak among its employees, and most of the 11,500 workers there have been sent home, leaving a skeleton staff to keep the site safe. Whether the plant will be restarted after the epidemic is unknown.

Fewer than half Sellafield’s workers are involved in reprocessing. Most are engaged in cleaning up after decades of nuclear energy generation and related experiments. There are 200 buildings at the massive site, many of them disused. It costs British taxpayers around £2.3 billion (US$2.8bn) a year to run Sellafield and keep it safe.

Solution needed soon

While the British government has been reluctant to make any decision on what to do about its stockpiled plutonium and uranium, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has expressed alarm about the danger it poses.

“The United Kingdom has to find a solution for its plutonium stockpile, and quickly,” its report says.

The scientists point out that there is enough plutonium to make hundreds of thousands of nuclear weapons, and that it is a permanent proliferation risk. The annual cost of £73m to keep the plutonium safe is dwarfed by the much larger cost of trying to make safe the whole site with its thousands of tonnes of nuclear waste.

The Bulletin reports that the original reason for the reprocessing works was to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons. The UK supplied the US at times, as well as producing its own weapons. A 2014 agreement between the British and US governments gives an outline of the nuclear links which then existed between them.

“The British government, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, and reactor operators in general should accept that separated plutonium is a burden, not a resource”

For decades there were also plans to use plutonium in fast breeder reactors and to blend it with uranium to make Mixed Oxide Fuel (MOX) .

This was a time when governments believed that the world’s supply of uranium would run out and that re-using it with plutonium would be a way of generating large amounts of electricity, as a way to avoid burning fossil fuels and as part of the solution to climate change.

MOX was one possible fuel. Using recycled plutonium in fast breeder reactors was another possibility. And a third option was new-style reactors that burned plutonium, theoretically possible but never built.

But uranium did not run out, and MOX did not prove economic. It and the new reactors proved so technically difficult they were abandoned.

Despite these setbacks, successive British governments have continued reprocessing, always refusing to class plutonium as a waste, while still exploring ways of using it in some kind of new reactor. This is likely to remain the official position even after reprocessing ends in December.

The UK’s Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, the agency that runs Sellafield, faced by this indecision, continues to store the plutonium behind three barbed-wire barricades, guarded by the only armed civilian police force in the country.

Here to stay?

One of the tricky political problems is that 23 tonnes of the plutonium is owned by Japan, which sent its spent fuel to be reprocessed at Sellafield but is unable to use the recycled material, which cannot be returned to Japan in its current state because of nuclear proliferation concerns.

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has examined all the potential options suggested to put the 139 tonnes of plutonium to some useful peaceful purpose (in other words, to create energy), but concludes that none of them is viable.

It says: “The British government, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, and reactor operators in general should accept that separated plutonium is a burden, not a resource, and authority should again take a closer look at immobilisation options.”

Among the solutions that have been suggested is to mix the plutonium with ceramics to immobilise and stabilise it, so that it can be safely stored or disposed of, not used for weapons. The government has so far rejected that option. − Climate News Network

UK tops global plutonium league

EMBARGOED until 2301 GMT on Sunday 5 May The UK Government believes that nuclear power is an essential part of the country’s energy mix in order to help it to cut greenhouse gas emissions. That is partly why it has so much plutonium, with all its attendant problems. LONDON, 6 May – Britain’s plutonium stockpile is the biggest in the world and has just grown by another three tonnes as the German and Dutch governments have handed over their stores, apparently glad to be rid of it. This man-made metal was once thought to be the most valuable substance in the world because 10 kg could make a nuclear bomb, or for generating electricity. But plutonium is now widely seen as a major liability, particularly if you have 118 tonnes of it, as the UK now does. The British Government, however, believing it may still find a peaceful use for the plutonium, still regards it as an asset. It keeps its stockpile under 24-hour armed guard at the Sellafield nuclear plant in Cumbria in the north-west of England. It argues that the energy the plutonium contains should be harnessed to produce low carbon electricity as part of the battle against climate change. Anyone who comes up with a scheme to do this would make billions of pounds from British taxpayers. But experience has shown that exploiting plutonium is not for the faint-hearted. Despite previous setbacks there are companies who believe they can provide a solution using techniques similar to past failures. Several nuclear states – Russian, Japan and France – have tried to develop fast breeder reactors using plutonium, but all have abandoned them as unworkable, uneconomic or both. The British Government ran a successful prototype in the 1980s but concluded a scaled-up version, even if it could be made to work, would be hopelessly uneconomic. The second option, of burning plutonium in normal reactors by mixing it with uranium to create a fuel called MOX (mixed oxide) is complex. It is always expensive and in Britain has been an economic disaster. Sellafield’s MOX plant was designed to use up the plutonium stockpiles and produce 120 tonnes of fuel a year, but repeated technical difficulties proved insuperable. After five years the plant had produced only five tonnes of usable fuel.

Writing it off

  To fulfill the few contracts it had the operator, British Nuclear Fuels, had to pay the French to produce the fuel in their own much older MOX plant. The Sellafield plant’s closure was announced in August 2011 after its major customer Japan no longer wanted any fuel following the Fukushima disaster. Over its short lifetime it lost £1.4 billion. The alternative to using plutonium as a fuel, which many governments and most environmental groups now favour, is to treat it as waste. This too would involve investing billions of pounds in finding some way of destroying or diluting the plutonium so it could never be used for weapons. Britain, aware that this process would also render its expensively produced plutonium useless for energy production, has repeatedly rejected this course of action. This is partly because thousands of people are still employed in Cumbria creating yet more plutonium. Thirty years ago the Government erroneously thought uranium for nuclear reactors would become scarce and plutonium could be substituted. As an insurance against scarcity it sanctioned new reprocessing works to recover plutonium and spent uranium from used fuel for peaceful purposes (previous works had been developed to feed plutonium to the nuclear weapons programme). To make money out of the new plant, contracts were signed to reprocess spent fuel from Japan, Germany and six other countries, recovering their plutonium as well. The result is the world’s largest stock of plutonium, some of it owned by these customer governments which now, finding they have no use for it, have handed it over to Britain. Although there is no obvious market for all this plutonium, spent fuel from existing reactors is still being reprocessed to extract yet more plutonium, which is added to the stockpile. Meanwhile owning 118 tonnes of plutonium is an ever more expensive problem. It is a volatile substance constantly in a state of radioactive decay that can be stored only in small separated amounts to avoid it beginning to react with itself, a process called “going critical.” A specially built new store has just been commissioned at Sellafield. The annual costs of looking after this much plutonium are currently estimated at £80 million a year. The Government is convinced that one day it will be an asset despite all the evidence to the contrary. It is waiting for the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA), the government quango (quasi-autonomous NGO) charged with dealing with waste and “end products” of the nuclear industry, to come up with a solution.

No way forward?

  The three options currently under consideration are new versions of failed technologies. Two involve building a new MOX plant to create a new sort of fuel to burn plutonium and uranium in either Canadian reactors or yet-to-be-built British ones. Both require large investments by British taxpayers, about £6 billion. The third option is a new fast breeder reactor, different from the old failed type, or so its proposers claim. The GE Hitachi Prism reactor, to be developed by the Japanese, would burn plutonium and also produce new fuel for other reactors. Not yet built, in theory it will work, and its proposers say they will bear the cost of construction. The NDA says it will come up with a preferred option on what to do with the plutonium soon, burning it as fuel or disposing of it as waste, and then the Government will have to decide. Campaigners against the UK nuclear industry believe none of the schemes to use plutonium as fuel will work, and that by taking ownership of other countries’ stockpiles Britain is making a bad situation worse. Martin Forwood, of Cumbrians Opposed to a Radioactive Environment (CORE), said successive governments had pledged to ensure that plutonium belonging to foreign governments would be returned to them. Now, as these governments had abandoned using their plutonium as fuel, the UK had agreed to take it. “Britain is being used as a plutonium dumping ground”, he said. “All those promises and the contracts saying the waste and plutonium would be returned to the country of origin have been put on one side. It is a disgrace.” As for using plutonium as a fuel, he said: “Lessons have clearly not been learned from the UK’s past MOX mistakes which have already cost the taxpayer a fortune.  Common sense dictates the Government and the NDA should treat plutonium as waste and put it out of harm’s way once and for all.” Adrian Simper, the NDA’s strategy and technology director, seemed pleased at what he called the “market tension” of alternative ways of using the plutonium. He told the London Financial Times the intention was to tell the Government whether there were “three, two, one – or even no ways forward.” At some point it would have to decide the fate of the plutonium. – Climate News Network

EMBARGOED until 2301 GMT on Sunday 5 May The UK Government believes that nuclear power is an essential part of the country’s energy mix in order to help it to cut greenhouse gas emissions. That is partly why it has so much plutonium, with all its attendant problems. LONDON, 6 May – Britain’s plutonium stockpile is the biggest in the world and has just grown by another three tonnes as the German and Dutch governments have handed over their stores, apparently glad to be rid of it. This man-made metal was once thought to be the most valuable substance in the world because 10 kg could make a nuclear bomb, or for generating electricity. But plutonium is now widely seen as a major liability, particularly if you have 118 tonnes of it, as the UK now does. The British Government, however, believing it may still find a peaceful use for the plutonium, still regards it as an asset. It keeps its stockpile under 24-hour armed guard at the Sellafield nuclear plant in Cumbria in the north-west of England. It argues that the energy the plutonium contains should be harnessed to produce low carbon electricity as part of the battle against climate change. Anyone who comes up with a scheme to do this would make billions of pounds from British taxpayers. But experience has shown that exploiting plutonium is not for the faint-hearted. Despite previous setbacks there are companies who believe they can provide a solution using techniques similar to past failures. Several nuclear states – Russian, Japan and France – have tried to develop fast breeder reactors using plutonium, but all have abandoned them as unworkable, uneconomic or both. The British Government ran a successful prototype in the 1980s but concluded a scaled-up version, even if it could be made to work, would be hopelessly uneconomic. The second option, of burning plutonium in normal reactors by mixing it with uranium to create a fuel called MOX (mixed oxide) is complex. It is always expensive and in Britain has been an economic disaster. Sellafield’s MOX plant was designed to use up the plutonium stockpiles and produce 120 tonnes of fuel a year, but repeated technical difficulties proved insuperable. After five years the plant had produced only five tonnes of usable fuel.

Writing it off

  To fulfill the few contracts it had the operator, British Nuclear Fuels, had to pay the French to produce the fuel in their own much older MOX plant. The Sellafield plant’s closure was announced in August 2011 after its major customer Japan no longer wanted any fuel following the Fukushima disaster. Over its short lifetime it lost £1.4 billion. The alternative to using plutonium as a fuel, which many governments and most environmental groups now favour, is to treat it as waste. This too would involve investing billions of pounds in finding some way of destroying or diluting the plutonium so it could never be used for weapons. Britain, aware that this process would also render its expensively produced plutonium useless for energy production, has repeatedly rejected this course of action. This is partly because thousands of people are still employed in Cumbria creating yet more plutonium. Thirty years ago the Government erroneously thought uranium for nuclear reactors would become scarce and plutonium could be substituted. As an insurance against scarcity it sanctioned new reprocessing works to recover plutonium and spent uranium from used fuel for peaceful purposes (previous works had been developed to feed plutonium to the nuclear weapons programme). To make money out of the new plant, contracts were signed to reprocess spent fuel from Japan, Germany and six other countries, recovering their plutonium as well. The result is the world’s largest stock of plutonium, some of it owned by these customer governments which now, finding they have no use for it, have handed it over to Britain. Although there is no obvious market for all this plutonium, spent fuel from existing reactors is still being reprocessed to extract yet more plutonium, which is added to the stockpile. Meanwhile owning 118 tonnes of plutonium is an ever more expensive problem. It is a volatile substance constantly in a state of radioactive decay that can be stored only in small separated amounts to avoid it beginning to react with itself, a process called “going critical.” A specially built new store has just been commissioned at Sellafield. The annual costs of looking after this much plutonium are currently estimated at £80 million a year. The Government is convinced that one day it will be an asset despite all the evidence to the contrary. It is waiting for the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA), the government quango (quasi-autonomous NGO) charged with dealing with waste and “end products” of the nuclear industry, to come up with a solution.

No way forward?

  The three options currently under consideration are new versions of failed technologies. Two involve building a new MOX plant to create a new sort of fuel to burn plutonium and uranium in either Canadian reactors or yet-to-be-built British ones. Both require large investments by British taxpayers, about £6 billion. The third option is a new fast breeder reactor, different from the old failed type, or so its proposers claim. The GE Hitachi Prism reactor, to be developed by the Japanese, would burn plutonium and also produce new fuel for other reactors. Not yet built, in theory it will work, and its proposers say they will bear the cost of construction. The NDA says it will come up with a preferred option on what to do with the plutonium soon, burning it as fuel or disposing of it as waste, and then the Government will have to decide. Campaigners against the UK nuclear industry believe none of the schemes to use plutonium as fuel will work, and that by taking ownership of other countries’ stockpiles Britain is making a bad situation worse. Martin Forwood, of Cumbrians Opposed to a Radioactive Environment (CORE), said successive governments had pledged to ensure that plutonium belonging to foreign governments would be returned to them. Now, as these governments had abandoned using their plutonium as fuel, the UK had agreed to take it. “Britain is being used as a plutonium dumping ground”, he said. “All those promises and the contracts saying the waste and plutonium would be returned to the country of origin have been put on one side. It is a disgrace.” As for using plutonium as a fuel, he said: “Lessons have clearly not been learned from the UK’s past MOX mistakes which have already cost the taxpayer a fortune.  Common sense dictates the Government and the NDA should treat plutonium as waste and put it out of harm’s way once and for all.” Adrian Simper, the NDA’s strategy and technology director, seemed pleased at what he called the “market tension” of alternative ways of using the plutonium. He told the London Financial Times the intention was to tell the Government whether there were “three, two, one – or even no ways forward.” At some point it would have to decide the fate of the plutonium. – Climate News Network