Exclusive:

Plans to build a nuclear fast reactor at Sellafield come a step closer

 

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.

Britain’s own fast-reactor programme was abandoned two decades 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, The Independent can reveal that nuclear officials have signed a feasibility study to investigate the possibility of building an American-designed fast reactor to “burn” the plutonium waste on-site at Sellafield.

The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA), which has overall responsibility for Sellafield and its 100-tonne 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 consistently said that its preferred option to deal with the plutonium waste at Sellafield is to build a second Mox fuel plant at Sellafield – the first Mox fuel 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 civil plutonium waste is because the UK nuclear industry wanted to burn it in fast reactors at Dounreay in Scotland, which had to be abandoned two decades ago, again because of technical failures.

Yesterday, the NDA announced that it would now cost nearly £3bn to decommission the heavily-contaminated site at Dounreay, although it attempted to sweeten the pill by claiming that this was £1bn less than originally planned.

In a statement to The Independent, the NDA said that it had originally ruled out fast reactors as a “credible option” for disposing of the plutonium because the technology was immature and such reactors would not be commercially available for several decades.

“GE Hitachi subsequently approached NDA to suggest their technology was at a more advanced stage of development. Discussions are now ongoing and a contract has been signed between NDA and GE Hitachi for a feasibility study which will be delivered over the next 3-4 months and, after review of the outputs, NDA will consider the credibility, or otherwise, of the proposal,” the NDA said.

“At this stage, evidence has not been provided which changes the NDA position that fast reactors are not credible,” it added.

The GE-Hitachi Prism reactor has come out of the US Department of Energy’s integral fast reactor programme, which was itself abandoned by President Bill Clinton in 1994, just before Britain abandoned its own fast-reactor programme.

However, GE-Hitachi has convinced the NDA that there are grounds for believing that it may be possible to build a pair of fast-reactors at Sellafield that can deal directly with the waste plutonium, rather than the more elaborate method of converting it first into Mox fuel that would then be burned in conventional nuclear reactors.

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 up-front cost to the UK taxpayer.

“We will only charge for each kilogram or tonne of plutonium we dispose of. We’re not going to build a several billion pound plant that doesn’t work,” Mr Roderick said.

The Prism fast reactor would be licensed and built within 10 years of given the go-ahead and it could deal with all the plutonium on a “once-through” basis within five years, he said.

A Mox plant would by comparison be subsidised by the UK taxpayer and would take far longer to build and will almost certainly not be built to budget, given the example of the French-built Mox plant in the US which is nearly ten times over budget and many years over schedule, Mr Roderick said.

It is believed that Professor David MacKay, chief scientist at the Department for Energy and Climate Change, has been persuaded of the merits of building a fast-reactor at Sellafield.

“The more people we’ve educated on this, the more support we’re seeing,” Mr Roderick said.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
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

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist / Physio / Osteopath

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for o...

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager / Sales Executive - Contract Hire

£35000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This industry leader provides c...

Recruitment Genius: Project Coordinator

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Project Coordinator is requir...

Recruitment Genius: Area Sales Manager - Midlands

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

Dying dream of Doctor Death

Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy
UK heatwave: Temperature reaches 39.8 degrees on Central Line - the sweatiest place in London

39.8 degrees recorded on Tube

There's hot (London) and too damn hot (the Underground). Simon Usborne braved the Central line to discover what its passengers suffer
Kitchens go hi-tech: From robot chefs to recipe-shopping apps, computerised cooking is coming

Computerised cooking is coming

From apps that automatically make shopping lists from your recipe books to smart ovens and robot chefs, Kevin Maney rounds up innovations to make your mouth water
Jessie Cave interview: The Harry Potter star has published a feminist collection of cartoons

Jessie Cave's feminist cartoons

The Harry Potter star tells Alice Jones how a one-night stand changed her life
Football Beyond Borders: Even the most distruptive pupils score at homework club

Education: Football Beyond Borders

Add football to an after-school homework club, and even the naughtiest boys can score
10 best barbecue books

Fire up the barbie: 10 best barbecue books

We've got Bibles to get you grilling and smoking like a true south American pro
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power
Ron Dennis exclusive: ‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

Ron Dennis shrugs off a poor start to the season in an exclusive interview, and says the glory days will come back
Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most
Katy Perry prevented from buying California convent for $14.5m after nuns sell to local businesswoman instead

No grace of God for Katy Perry as sisters act to stop her buying convent

Archdiocese sues nuns who turned down star’s $14.5m because they don’t approve of her