Britain's top scientific organisation has backed a controversial proposal to build a second multibillion-pound nuclear fuel plant at Sellafield in Cumbria to deal with the UK's enormous stockpile of civil plutonium, but it has done so without addressing either the cost or the failures of an existing fuel plant, which had to be closed this year.
A Royal Society report says another mixed oxide (Mox) fuel plant at Sellafield is the only way of dealing with the plutonium stockpile at the site, but it pointedly fails to discuss either the costs of the new plant or the reasons why the existing Sellafield Mox plant has been such a disaster.
Critics say that the society's inquiry into the nuclear fuel cycle has been heavily influenced by the vested interests of the nuclear industry. One of the experts on the report's working group, Dr Christine Brown, was a key figure at Sellafield when British Nuclear Fuels Ltd (BNFL) was building its Mox plant.
Dr Brown joined Sellafield in 1995 to work on the new plant, designed to produce 120 tonnes of Mox fuel a year but only managed about a tenth of this in its entire lifetime – at a total cost to the UK taxpayer of £1.3bn.
The report, Fuel Cycle Stewardship in a Nuclear Renaissance, highlights a French Mox fuel plant at Marcoule that does perform efficiently, saying Britain could learn much from its design. But the report makes no mention of the problems at a US Mox plant being built at Savannah River in South Carolina, with French help, which is behind schedule and five times over budget.
Asked by The Independent why his report fails to discuss the problems of the existing Mox plants at Sellafield and Savannah River, Professor Roger Cashmore, chairman of the Royal Society's working group, said the problems were not relevant to his inquiry. He said: "That wasn't what we were interested in. We were interested in taking things forward. We didn't address the issue of whether Mox plants around the world were satisfactory or had cost overruns as we felt it was not within our remit."
The Sellafield Mox plant was designed to turn foreign-owned spent fuel into Mox fuel for export, mainly to Japan. However, soon after the plant was opened in 2002, its design flaws became obvious. The Fukushima disaster in March this year led to a suspension of Mox fuel shipments to Japan from Europe and eventually forced the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, which is now in charge of Sellafield, to close the Mox plant.
Asked to explain why the Mox plant failed, Dr Brown said: "My job was to make sure that the fuel performed well. However, trying to transfer that specific part of the manufacturing process and make a plant which was up to modern-day standards has proved to be quite difficult. I'm terribly disappointed, but the decision [to close the plant] is correct, in that we've given the SMP quite some time to meet the expectations of the original design.
"It is clear we were not going to do that in the near future," she said.
Dr Brown said that two new nuclear reactors licensed to burn Mox fuel could deal with Britain's plutonium stockpile within a period of 50 or 60 years.