Day after Sellafield plant is shut, Government told to build another

The plant has been a complete technological failure, managing to produce only a little fuel
  • @SteveAConnor

The Government is being pressured to build a new nuclear-fuel plant at Sellafield in Cumbria, just a day after the decision to close a failing plant that has so far cost British taxpayers £1.34bn.

Local politicians and trade unions want the Government to agree to a new mixed-oxide (Mox) fuel plant costing up to £6bn, in the wake of the announcement on Wednesday to close the controversial Sellafield Mox Plant just nine years after it was opened.

The Nuclear Decomissioning Authority, which operates the Sellafield site, said it had decided to close the existing Mox plant because of a lack of orders from Japanese power companies following the crisis at the Fukushima nuclear plant. That facility was crippled by a tsunami after a huge earthquake struck Japan on 11 March.

Ministers' preferred option on dealing with the problem of the huge mountain of civilian plutonium at Sellafield – the biggest stockpile in the world – is to build a second Mox fuel plant. The plan is for the plant to convert much of this waste plutonium into fuel that can be burned in a new generation of nuclear reactors to be built in Britian. Trade unions said that a quick decision on a second plant would help to save an estimated 800 jobs. The local Labour MP Jamie Reed, a former Sellafield employee, said he intends to press the Government for a decision on a second Mox plant as soon as the House of Commons returns from its summer recess.

Mr Reed said: "I am working for nothing less than for Government to announce its intentions to proceed with a new Mox plant at Sellafield.

"This is without doubt wholly within the national interest."

The existing Sellafield Mox Plant cannot be adapted to the task because it was licensed to make Mox fuel for foreign nuclear reactors, particularly in Japan. The plant has been a complete technological failure, managing to produce only a tiny fraction of the Mox fuel it was supposed to generate.

But one option being proposed by Martin Forwood, of the pressure group Core (Cumbrians Opposed to a Radioactive Environment), is to use the existing Mox plant to convert the plutonium mountain into "low specification" Mox . This form of Mox would not be used as nuclear fuel, but would be encased in canisters and buried in a long-term repository.

"It would be cheaper to use the existing Sellafield Mox Plant to make low-spec Mox for safer, long-term storage of plutonium than building an entirely new plant to make Mox fuel that would be more expensive to use than conventional uranium fuel," Mr Forward said. "It is a golden opportunity for the Government and the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority to consider this option."

A Sellafield spokesman said: "Disposal would foreclose the economic recovery of plutonium as a future energy source. All other countries with a stockpile appear to be planning to convert their excess plutonium into Mox for reuse."

What is plutonium?

Plutonium is formed as a by-product of nuclear fission – the splitting of the uranium atoms in a nuclear reactor. The element comes in several forms, or isotopes. The most important is plutonium-239, which has a half-life of 24,100 years, which means it takes this time for half of its radioactivity to decrease.

Plutonium-239 is the most useful form of the element in nuclear weapons. One kilogram of plutonium-239 can release the energy equivalent to the explosion of 21,000 tons of TNT. Plutonium is highly dangerous when inhaled or ingested. It emits alpha radiation, which can damage the DNA of cells and cause cancer. Britain has the biggest civilian stockpile of plutonium in the world – 113 tons.