Government's doomed £6bn plan to dispose of nuclear waste

One month after the Japanese tsunami, the world's biggest reserve of plutonium waste is reaching crisis point. It was meant to be reprocessed and sold – but now no nation will take it. So where is this vast stockpile? Not Fukushima, but Sellafield, Cumbria

The nuclear crisis in Japan threatens a carefully choreographed UK Government plan to tackle the world's biggest mountain of plutonium waste stored at the Sellafield site in Cumbria.

Japanese nervousness about nuclear power following the near-meltdown at the Fukushima plant has led to a freeze in the international trade of reprocessed nuclear fuel that the Government sees as critical to solving Britain's own plutonium problem.

The Government's preferred strategy to eliminate the UK's growing plutonium stockpile centres on a technology that was developed to meet the demands of the Japanese market, yet there are now fears that Japan is about to turn its back on the enterprise.

It was hoped that Japanese contracts with Sellafield to make mixed oxide (Mox) nuclear fuel would underpin the economic and political case to tackle Britain's plutonium stockpile with a second multi-billion-pound Mox fabrication plant on the Cumbrian site.

However, Japanese power companies have told Sellafield that concerns about Fukushima have forced them to indefinitely postpone a shipment of French-made Mox nuclear fuel that would have been transported on British vessels operated from Sellafield.

The postponement is significant because the Mox shipment was not destined for the stricken reactors at Fukushima operated by Tokyo Electric, but for the unaffected Hamaoka reactors operated by Chubu Electric, the same company that was supposed to be one of the first customers of the existing Sellafield Mox Plant (SMP).

Chubu Electric and nine other Japanese power companies have also indicated that because of long-term production problems that have dogged the SMP, they will not now be taking any reprocessed fuel from Britain until at least the end of the decade – nearly 20 years after the plant was opened to serve the Japanese market.

This would mean that the existing Mox plant at Sellafield, which was designed to supply more than 1,000 tons of Mox over 10 years, is likely to produce a tiny fraction of this before it is due to be decommissioned, at enormous cost to the British taxpayer.

The setback is seen as a huge blow to the business of making and selling Mox fuel, touted by the Government as the best way of dealing with Britain's stockpile of civilian plutonium, which is itself the product of nuclear-waste reprocessing at Sellafield.

Government ministers, their officials and advisers are all privately convinced that "recycling" plutonium waste into nuclear fuel that could be "burned" in nuclear reactors represents the safest and least expensive option in dealing with the stockpile.

A Government consultation on the stockpile ends next month but ministers have already made it clear that the "Mox option" is their preferred route, even though it would require a second Mox plant at Sellafield costing £3bn at discounted prices – the actual lifetime cost of the plant is likely to be nearer £6bn.

The existing Sellafield Mox Plant, opened in 2002, has cost more than £1.3bn to date yet has produced just 13.8 tons of Mox fuel in nine years compared to an expected output of 120 tons per year. A leaked cable from the US embassy in London said Sellafield's Mox plant was a white elephant costing about £90m a year and considered, privately, by the UK Government as "[one of] the most embarrassing failures in British industrial history".

Yet, ministers have now agreed they should press on with preparing the public for an even bigger Mox plant to deal with the growing stockpile of British-owned plutonium, expected to reach 109 tons within a few years.

Independent scientists, from Sir David King, the former chief scientist, to fellows of the Royal Society, are supporting a new Mox plant and believe there is no viable alternative.

However, nuclear experts have told The Independent that the existing Sellafield Mox plant is a serious drain on the budget of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, which took over the Sellafield site from BNFL in 2005. They said that the authority would like to close the plant, except that to do so would be a PR disaster at a time when the Government is about to propose another one.

In January, before the nuclear crisis at Fukushima, Jonathan Marland, a junior Government minister, told the House of Lords that a new Mox plant at Sellafield would turn the world's biggest plutonium stockpile from a liability into an asset and that a decision on whether to go ahead and build it is likely later this year. Lord Marland admitted that the existing Mox plant is not fit for purpose, which is why the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority has brought in the French nuclear company Areva, which wants to build the second Mox plant based on its own Mox operation at Marcoule in the south of France.

Although the Government has not finished its consultation exercise on the plutonium stockpile, it has already made it clear that the long-term storage and disposal of plutonium would be even more expensive than building a second plant to convert it into Mox fuel.

Q & A: Why has it come to this?

Q: What is Britain's "plutonium mountain"?

A: It is the nation's stockpile of radioactive plutonium, kept as plutonium dioxide powder, packed into special drums stored at Sellafield in Cumbria. A further, smaller amount is stored at the Dounreay nuclear facility in Scotland, the site of the doomed nuclear fast-breeder reactor programme.



Q: Why is the plutonium stockpile so big?

A: This is civilian plutonium, not military. It is largely the result of a decision in the 1960s to extract the plutonium from spent nuclear fuel for use in fast-breeder reactors, which were never built commercially. Britain continued to accumulate civilian plutonium, currently amounting to 84 tonnes, along with foreign-owned plutonium, currently 28 tonnes. The final British-owned plutonium stockpile will be 109 tonnes, once fuel reprocessing from existing nuclear reactors has been completed.



Q: Why do we need to do anything with it?

A: Plutonium remains radioactive for many thousands of years – just how long depends on which isotope. Experts say that doing nothing with the stockpile is not an option – the current methods of storage will eventually become unsafe in decades to come. Plutonium either has to be put into long-term storage, with a view of permanent disposal at some future point in cement or glass blocks, or used in some way that makes it "safer", such as incorporating it into Mox fuel that is used in a reactor.



Q: Is converting plutonium to Mox fuel safe?

A: Plutonium is an extreme health risk if it gets inside the body – it emits alpha particles which are highly dangerous if they penetrate the skin because they damage the DNA of cells and cause cancer. It is also a security risk because of its use in nuclear weapons and "dirty" bombs. By converting it to Mox fuel, and irradiating this fuel in reactors, some experts believe that plutonium will, ironically, become safer because, being more radioactive, it will be more difficult to handle. Opponents argue that manufacturing Mox necessarily increases security risks not least because of the transport of Mox fuel rods, and even plutonium dioxide, which can be subject to terrorist attacks of accidents.



Q: Is it easy to use Mox fuel in nuclear reactors?

A: Some reactors do use Mox, but only as a small percentage (less than 30 per cent) of the total fuel. The rest of the fuel is conventional uranium oxide. Supporters of Mox suggest that the new generation of nuclear reactors to be built in Britain could burn Mox fuel and thereby be used to diminish the plutonium stockpile. However, the new reactors have been licensed to burn uranium-only fuel and none of the reactor designs being considered has been "justified" for Mox, which in any case remains far more expensive than conventional uranium fuel.

News
Susan Sarandon described David Bowie as
peopleSusan Sarandon reveals more on her David Bowie romance
Sport
Arsenal supporters gather for a recent ‘fan party’ in New Jersey
football
Sport
sportDidier Drogba returns to Chelsea on one-year deal
Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
Balmain's autumn/winter 2014 campaign, shot by Mario Sorrenti and featuring Binx Walton, Cara Delevingne, Jourdan Dunn, Ysaunny Brito, Issa Lish and Kayla Scott
fashionHow Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film
filmFifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage in US
News
BBC broadcaster and presenter Evan Davis, who will be taking over from Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight
peopleForget Paxman - what will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Life and Style
fashionCustomer complained about the visibly protruding ribs
Voices
The new dawn heralded by George Osborne has yet to rise
voicesJames Moore: As the Tories rub their hands together, the average voter will be asking why they're not getting a piece of the action
Sport
Dejan Lovren celebrates scoring for Southampton although the goal was later credited to Adam Lallana
sport
News
newsComedy club forced to apologise as maggots eating a dead pigeon fall out of air-conditioning
Arts and Entertainment
Jo Brand says she's mellowed a lot
tvJo Brand says shows encourage people to laugh at the vulnerable
Life and Style
People may feel that they're procrastinating by watching TV in the evening
life
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

£600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

Commercial Litigation Associate

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - GLOBAL...

Systems Manager - Dynamics AX

£65000 - £75000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: The client is a...

Service Delivery Manager (Software Development, Testing)

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A well-established software house ba...

Day In a Page

Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

Finding the names for America’s shame

The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

Inside a church for Born Again Christians

As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

Incredible survival story of David Tovey

Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little