Taxpayers will be expected to pay the full costs of closing down and decommissioning a controversial nuclear fuel plant at Sellafield in Cumbria which was built to provide plutonium-uranium mixed oxides (Mox) fuel to foreign power companies.
Japanese customers have been told that they will not have to pay a penny towards the expected £100m costs of decommissioning the Sellafield Mox Plant, which was closed in August because of Japan’s “anticipated” cancellation of orders.
When a new nuclear power plant is decommissioned, the costs are supposed to be met by a levy on electricity companies but because the Sellafield Mox Plant is not new and was operated by the now-defunct, state-owned British Nuclear Fuels, the decommissioning liabilities fall to the British government.
The Sellafield Mox Plant has so far cost British taxpayers about £1.34bn in capital and operating costs since it was built in the 1990s to manufacture Mox fuel from reprocessed plutonium derived from spent nuclear fuel sent from abroad.
The plant was originally expected to produced 120 tonnes of Mox fuel a year but has only managed about a tenth of this amount since it was opened in 2002 after a long legal dispute over whether the economic benefits of the facility would outweigh the costs.
A report for the Government by management consultants Arthur D Little predicted in 2001 that the Sellafield Mox Plant would earn the UK more than £200m in foreign currency by exporting Mox fuel to Japan and several other countries. “We believe the Sellafield Mox Plant will yield a net economic benefit,” the report concluded.
However, after the plant opened it was plagued by production problems due to its faulty design and layout. Instead of producing 120 tonnes of Mox a year, it managed less than 14 tonnes in eight years, none of which has been sold to Japan.
The Japanese signed a further contract with Sellafield to refurbish the plant but the nuclear crisis at Fukushima last March called into question Japan’s ability to fulfil its orders for Mox fuel. This became even more apparent in May when the Japanese Prime Minster called for the closure of the Hamaoke power plant 200km from Tokyo, which was to be Sellafield’s first and most important customer for Mox.
However, instead of waiting for the Japanese utilities to cancel their orders for Mox fuel, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, which has overall responsibility for Sellafield now that BNFL no longer exists, decided to close down the Mox plant in anticipation that the orders will be cancelled.
The costs of decommissioning the plant, which is contaminated with plutonium, are estimated to be in excess of £100m although this figure may be reduced if the building is used for another purpose, such as storage of nuclear material.
The Government is expected within the next week to announce its response to a public consultation on what to do with the UK’s huge 112 tonne stockpile of plutonium waste stored at Sellafield. It has said that its “preferred option” is to build another Mox plant at Sellafield, this time dedicated to dealing with British-owned plutonium.
However, critics of the plan point to the abject failure of the existing Mox plant and are incredulous that ministers are even thinking about accepting the advice of the nuclear industry and sanctioning another Mox plant, costing an estimated £3bn to build and a further £3bn in operating costs.
One other option being considered is the possibility of building a nuclear fast-reactor at Sellafield, which is able to burn plutonium and other nuclear waste. However, critics of this plan say that fast-reactors are not a proven and reliable technology.