Britain imports US nuclear waste: Sellafield in deal to reprocess uranium from military plant

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The Independent Online
BRITISH Nuclear Fuels is to import more than 183,000 gallons of nitric acid contaminated with uranium from a United States atomic weapons plant, in a deal believed to be worth about half a million dollars to BNFL.

The unprecedented shipment is part of a multibillion-dollar effort to clean up the toxic legacy of the US military programme, which has left a series of highly contaminated sites across America. The material comes from a military reprocessing plant which the American government has closed and is trying to clean up.

Importing nuclear waste contravenes the British government's policy of 'self-sufficiency' in toxic waste disposal. Restated only last week in a Green Paper on radioactive waste disposal, the policy is that advanced industrial countries should handle their own waste and not ship it overseas.

The shipment was attacked by Greenpeace, which says transportation of uranium can add to the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

However, BNFL last night denied that the material is waste. A spokesman described it as 'surplus process material'. Although highly radioactive spent fuel has been imported for re-processing at BNFL's Thorp plant, those contracts stipulate that waste must be returned to the country of origin.

The company intends to feed the US waste into its existing Magnox reprocessing plant at Sellafield and separate out the uranium. This will remain the property of the US government but BNFL will keep it in 'indefinite storage' at its Capenhurst site in Cheshire.

BNFL will reuse the nitric acid in its reprocessing plant, reducing the amount it will need to buy from its usual suppliers in the British chemical industry.

Pure nitric acid is a relatively cheap, bulk chemical widely used in industry. The contaminated acid, containing approximately seven tons of uranium, will be shipped more than 6,000 miles from the site at Hanford, in Washington State on the west coast of the US. One US estimate is that it will cost the US Department of Energy dollars 2.2m to transport the material to Sellafield, in Cumbria.

Somewhat surprisingly, given BNFL's insistence that the material is not a waste product, the request for a licence to export the acid out of the US was signed by June Hennig, director of the waste management division at the Hanford site. Ms Hennig's covering letter makes clear that the US Department of Energy is desperate to get rid of it. 'Having the ability to export this material will greatly aid in the effort to complete the deactivation project and will shorten the time required to accomplish this clean-up task,' she says.

BNFL has set up a US subsidiary, BNFL Inc, to win business from the US nuclear industry. Last year, BNFL Inc won a 45 per cent share in a pounds 66m contract to help to clean up the highly radioactive wastes at Hanford. However, it was widely assumed that BNFL Inc's operations would involve offering the US industry its expertise and engineering skills to solve problems within the US, and not trans- shipping material to Britain.

Although BNFL said that the uranium-contaminated nitric acid will be transported in containers approved by the International Atomic Energy Authority, it is not highly radioactive. A spokesman for the company said: 'It is less radioactive than, for example, uranium hexafluoride, which has been transported by standard cargo vessels for over 30 years. It is many factors less radioactive than used fuel.'

BNFL wanted the shipments to start on 1 August, but the transaction has been delayed by the complex series of authorisations required by US authorities. The acid will now be transported as about 15 to 20 shipments over the course of a year or so.

A spokesman for the Department of the Environment said the Government knew of the projected import and that the department 'had brought it to the attention of the Health and Safety Executive and HM Inspectorate of Pollution who will, no doubt, ensure that it complies with all relevant regulatory requirements in the UK'.