Last week, the Secretary of State for the Environment received a Pollution Inspectorate report which will determine whether the go-ahead will be given to the pounds 2.8bn Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant (Thorp) at Sellafield. In its first 10 years, Thorp will separate from spent nuclear fuel nearly 10 tons of German plutonium which, contractually, must be returned to Germany.
Although the German government's position is that air transport of plutonium is acceptably safe, it has become a political issue. There has already been intense opposition to the airlifting of nuclear fuel containing plutonium to Dounreay in Scotland.
Safety regulations governing air transport of plutonium are in disarray. The International Atomic Energy Agency is producing tougher rules, but even when these are published in 1996 they will set much lower safety standards than those required by law in the United States.
In addition, while the German nuclear industry wants the plutonium in order to make fresh nuclear fuel (known as Mox or mixed-oxide fuel), the fuel fabrication plant in Hanau is located in the Land of Hesse whose Green-SPD government is opposed to airlifting.
One senior official in the Federal environment ministry said: 'The question has not been fully resolved. Land transport is the way we are used to.' Another was more explicit: 'I am sure it will not come by air. Land transport would be the preferred option.'
Sharon Tanzer, from the Washington-based Nuclear Control Institute, said: 'Frankfurt is one of the busiest airports in Europe, and to fly separated plutonium in there is really irresponsible unless you can guarantee that the casks are crash-proof.' She said that conditions in the crash of the El Al cargo plane near Schiphol in the Netherlands last October exceeded the worst envisaged even by US safety legislation for plutonium transport casks.
The Germans have already taken several deliveries of separated plutonium from the French reprocessing plant at Cap de la Hague. These were delivered in an armoured vehicle built by the Nuclear Cargo Service company at Hanau. Each truck contains up to 80kg of plutonium - enough for about 10 atomic bombs.
A spokesman for British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL) said that no decision had been taken on how the plutonium would be returned. The company had developed an air-transport flask capable of taking about 50kg of plutonium, which would conform to IAEA standards and was awaiting a Transport Department licence.
BNFL thinks that if the consignments left by land it might be possible to ship them across the Channel in a cargo ferry, the Nord Pas de Calais, which it uses to ship radioactive spent fuel to Sellafield for reprocessing.
In addition to the German contracts, Thorp plans to separate out some 20 tonnes or so of Japanese plutonium in its first decade.Reuse content