Revealed: new nuclear plant to tackle UK's plutonium mountain

  • @SteveAConnor

A radical plan to deal with Britain's plutonium waste – the biggest civil deposit in the world – has come a step closer with a legal contract to test the feasibility of building an American nuclear fast reactor on the Sellafield site in Cumbria, i has learnt.

Britain's own fast-reactor programme was abandoned 20 years ago and yesterday it was announced that the fast-reactor site at Dounreay in Scotland will be dismantled by 2025 at a cost of £2.7bn.

However, nuclear officials have signed a feasibility study to investigate the possibility of building an American-designed fast reactor to "burn" the plutonium waste onsite at Sellafield. The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA), which has overall responsibility for Sellafield and its 100-ton plutonium-waste problem, has signed the deal with GE-Hitachi to see whether its Prism fast reactor can directly eliminate the plutonium waste rather than the alternative method of converting it into mixed oxide (Mox) fuel for conventional nuclear reactors.

The deal represents a remarkable U-turn on the part of the NDA which has previously said that its preferred option to deal with the plutonium waste at Sellafield is to build a second Mox fuel plant there. The first Mox plant was closed last year after a catalogue of failures costing £1.34bn.

It is also ironic, given that the reason why Britain has such a large amount of plutonium waste is because the nuclear industry wanted to burn it in fast reactors at Dounreay, Scotland, a scheme which had to be abandoned two decades ago, again because of technical failures. Daniel Roderick, senior vice-president of GE Hitachi, said that if given the go-ahead the company will form a consortium that will build and operate the plant at no upfront cost to the UK taxpayer.