Accounts blamed for missing plutonium

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The Independent Online

The Sellafield nuclear plant cannot account for almost 30kg (66lb) of plutonium, but the loss was an auditing issue rather than involving any actual material, it was announced today.

The Sellafield nuclear plant cannot account for almost 30kg (66lb) of plutonium, but the loss was an auditing issue rather than involving any actual material, it was announced today.

An annual check of nuclear material at all of Britain's civil nuclear installations showed that 29.6kg of plutonium was unaccounted for in the last financial year at the Sellafield site in Cumbria.

The UK Atomic Energy Authority said the figure was within international standards of expected measurement accuracies.

The authority said that in most cases, unaccounted material resulted from uncertainties in the measurement systems used to produce the basic data and did not indicate real gains or losses of nuclear material.

"The MUF (material unaccounted for) figures for 2003/04 were all within international standards of expected measurement accuracies for closing a nuclear material balance at the type of facility concerned.

"There is no evidence to suggest that any of the apparent losses reported were real losses of nuclear material."

Sellafield, operated by the British Nuclear Group (BNG), reprocesses spent fuel, and employs more than 10,000 workers.

A BNG spokeswoman at Sellafield said: "This is material that is unaccounted for, and there is always a discrepancy between the physical inventory and the book inventory.

"There is no suggestion that any material has left the site."

She said the most likely reason for any shortfall was due to the complex measuring processes that were carried out.

"When you have got a complicated chemical procedure, quite often material remains in the plant," she said.

"We are extremely confident with the safety and security measures we have here at the site."

In 2003, the processing plant revealed that there was 19kg (42lb) of plutonium which was material unaccounted for.

"We have published these figures since the '70s," the spokeswoman said. "Some years there is an apparent gain, some years there is an apparent loss.

"It is all to do with the complex measuring procedures that we have to carry out."

Plutonium makes up 1% of the nuclear material handled at the Cumbrian nuclear plant – the rest is uranium.

A spokesman for the Department of Trade and Industry said: "This is an account of an ongoing process and does not represent the loss of any actual material.

"It is not unusual for the accounting process to indicate material unaccounted for."

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