Plant set to make Britain main plutonium producer: Tom Wilkie looks at the prospects for Sellafield when operations begin in two months after years of delay

ALTHOUGH the new pounds 2.8bn Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant (Thorp) at Sellafield in Cumbria was given the go-ahead by the Government yesterday, a further two months will elapse before British Nuclear Fuels puts the first highly radioactive spent fuel rod into the plant.

Once operations begin in earnest, Britain will become the world's largest producer of separated plutonium. Over the next 10 years, Thorp will add about 55 tonnes of plutonium to the existing 40-tonne civil stockpile which has accumulated from reprocessing fuel from first-generation Magnox reactors.

But some observers believe that within about five years BNFL will be forced to operate the plant at less than full capacity because the company will be unable to return plutonium and uranium to its foreign customers.

William Walker, at the Science Policy Research Unit of Sussex University, said: 'Britain will end up as Japan's offshore storage site for separated waste products.' He believes that overseas plutonium could be stockpiled at Sellafield for more than 25 years.

Yesterday's decision, Dr Walker said, 'forces the Government to permit long-term storage of foreign plutonium at Sellafield and, if they wish to draw down on those stocks, the Government will have to permit the construction of a mixed oxide fuel fabrication plant at Sellafield'.

BNFL hopes to be able to return plutonium to customers in the form of fresh fuel containing a mix of plutonium and uranium, but it needs planning permission to build a new plant at Sellafield to fabricate this fuel.

Thorp does not generate nuclear power and is a net consumer of energy. It exists to process spent fuel discharged, usually after three years, from nuclear power reactors. About 96 per cent of the spent fuel consists of unburnt uranium; 3 per cent is highly radioactive fission products; and 1 per cent is plutonium. The uranium and plutonium can, if there is a demand, be reused in power reactors, while the fission products have to be disposed of as waste.

About a quarter of the Sellafield site's 8,000 employees will be working directly on Thorp during normal operations. BNFL's plant represents a major source of employment in the economically blighted west of Cumbria.

The plant has been some 15 years in the building, since it was authorised by the Labour government in 1978. It was completed in February 1992, and has been waiting for the Government to authorise its operation.

To operate the plant, the company needed permission to discharge radioactivity from the chimney into the air, and down the pipeline into the Irish Sea. HM Inspectorate of Pollution took a very long time to draw up the new authorisations, which then had to go out for public comment and statutory consultations. This took until 25 January and then the inspectorate deliberated for months.

As time slipped by, costing BNFL pounds 2m each week, the rationale for the plant began to crumble under close scrutiny. Even BNFL's confidence began to slip: when Thorp was completed in March last year, Ken Jackson, director of international business for BNFL, proudly stated that it 'will underpin BNFL's profitability over the next 25 years'. By early January, senior BNFL staff were conceding privately that it might operate for about 10 years only, fulfilling the virtually unbreakable contracts foreign and domestic customers had signed in the late 1970s.

The first 10 years' capacity - to reprocess 7,000 tonnes of spent nuclear fuel - is virtually all taken up. BNFL maintains that this first 10 years will pay off the capital costs of building Thorp, make full provision for knocking down the radioactive building at the end of its life and still return a profit of about pounds 500m over the decade.

About 40 per cent of capacity for the second 10 years has already been sold to domestic customers and to Germany. But there is no longer any demand for the products that Thorp will provide.

The environmental lobby groups tapped an unexpectedly strong well-spring of opposition to Thorp and suddenly the Government realised that it faced a hot political issue. But Thorp is built and not putting it into operation would be to admit to the mistakes of the past decade when the project could have been terminated at a much lower cost.

If, in 10 years or so, BNFL runs out of customers and the highly radioactive plant costs more to knock down than the company had estimated, those who were responsible for yesterday's decision will be beyond the reach of any political retribution.

Sport
footballLIVE City face Stoke, while Warnock returns to Palace dugout
Life and Style
3D printed bump keys can access almost any lock
gadgets + techSoftware needs photo of lock and not much more
News
Paul McCartney backs the
people
News
i100
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment
Inside the gallery at Frederick Bremer School in Walthamstow
tvSimon Usborne goes behind the scenes to watch the latest series
Life and Style
Silvia says of her famous creation: 'I never stopped wearing it. Because I like to wear things when they are off the radar'
fashionThe fashion house celebrated fifteen years of the punchy pouch with a weighty tome
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace in Summer's Supermarket Secrets
tv All of this year's 15 contestants have now been named
News
i100Steve Carell selling chicken, Tina Fey selling saving accounts and Steve Colbert selling, um...
Life and Style
A picture taken on January 12, 2011 shows sex shops at the Paris district of Pigalle.
newsThe industry's trade body issued the moratorium on Friday
Arts and Entertainment
Could we see Iain back in the Bake Off tent next week?
tv Contestant teased Newsnight viewers on potential reappearance
News
i100
News
The slice of Prince Charles and Princess Diana's wedding cake and the original box from 29 July 1981
newsPiece of Charles and Diana's wedding cake sold at auction in US
Voices
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012
film Cara Delevingne 'in talks' to star in Zoolander sequel
Sport
Mario Balotelli pictured in his Liverpool shirt for the first time
football
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

C# .NET Web Developer (ASP.NET, JavaScript, jQuery, XML, XLST)

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# .NET Web De...

Clinical Negligence Solicitor

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: HAMPSHIRE MARKET TOWN - A highly attr...

Network Engineer (CCNP, CCNA, Linux, OSPF, BGP, Multicast, WAN)

£35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Network Engineer (CCNP, CCNA, Linux, OSPF,...

Commercial Property Solicitor - Bristol

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: A VERY HIGH QUALITY FIRM A high qual...

Day In a Page

Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone