Steve Connor: How a money-making strategy from the 1960s left behind a toxic legacy

Instead of producing 120 tonnes of Mox fuel each year, the plant has produced just 13.8 tonnes since 2002

Share
Related Topics

Bad decisions, poor performance and government subsidies have set the nuclear industry apart from any sector in Britain, except perhaps for banking.

The reason Britain has the biggest waste mountain of civilian plutonium in the world is down to a bad decision in the 1960s when the nuclear industry proposed turning nuclear waste from civilian reactors into plutonium for burning in fast-breeder reactors.

Technical problems meant that these reactors were never developed commercially – the project was finally abandoned in 1994 – but the plutonium stockpile kept growing. It currently stands at 112 tonnes, including 28 tonnes from foreign reactors that must at some point be returned to their owners.

The stockpile from British-owned reactors is currently 84 tonnes but will reach 109 tonnes by the time all the British-made spent fuel at Sellafield has been dealt with by the Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant (Thorp) – the biggest building on the Cumbrian site.

Plutonium is one of the most deadly substances known to man. Minuscule amounts can kill if ingested. It can also be used to make nuclear weapons, which is why governments around the world are so concerned about where and how it is stored.

In the 1990s, the industry proposed dealing with the growing plutonium stockpile by "recycling" it as mixed oxide (Mox) nuclear fuel for burning in thermal reactors. The idea, like so many in the nuclear industry, looked good on paper. By mixing relatively small amounts of plutonium dioxide with bigger amounts of uranium oxide from spent nuclear fuel, it would be possible to fabricate Mox fuel rods containing about 7 per cent "recycled" plutonium from reprocessed reactor fuel.

The industry was so confident that it proposed dealing not just with Britain's plutonium waste but with the waste of other countries, in particular Japan which relied heavily on nuclear power.

Sellafield, then operated by BNFL, started making Mox fuel rods at a demonstration facility while it built a new £498m Sellafield Mox Plant (SMP), specifically for foreign customers. The SMP was completed in 1996 but was only given a licence to open in 2002 after Helen Liddell, the then energy minister, had visited Japan to secure a "statement of intent" from Japanese customers who had been spooked by a scandal over falsified data at BNFL's Mox demonstration facility.

Before it opened, BNFL said that the SMP would be able to produce some 120 tonnes of Mox fuel a year and confidently predicted that it would earn millions in foreign exchange for Britain. But critics warned that this was "voodoo economics", essentially because conventional uranium fuel mined from the ground was at least 25 per cent cheaper than Mox.

But the problems were even greater than anyone had predicted. The SMP was dogged by technical failures. An independent investigation by consultants Arthur D Little – the company that had originally said that SMP made sense – found that the plant suffered something like 37,000 breakdowns a year.

Instead of producing 120 tonnes of Mox fuel each year, the plant has to date produced just 13.8 tonnes since it was opened in 2002. It has supplied just one Swiss company with one batch of fuel, fabricated another batch for a German customer that has yet to be delivered and, most importantly, has not made a single fuel rod for its main customers in Japan.

The cost of the SMP to the taxpayer ballooned to £1.34bn and now the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, which took over the Sellafield site from BNFL in 2005, said that no Mox fuel will be made or delivered to the Japanese power companies until at least the end of this decade. Meanwhile, the SMP is costing the authority nearly £100m a year in ongoing costs.

The total failure of the SMP has had serious repercussions. The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority has had to subcontract some of the Mox fabrication to Areva, the French nuclear power company that operates a Mox plant at Marcoule. This subcontracted work has led to the transport of half a tonne of highly dangerous plutonium dioxide powder from Sellafield to France under armed guard. According to leaked cables from the US Embassy in London, the UK Government believes the Sellafield Mox Plant is one of the biggest failures in British industrial history.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Read Next
New SNP MP Mhairi Black distinguished herself in Westminster straight away when she made herself a chip butty in the canteen  

The SNP adventure arrives in Westminister - but how long before these new MPs go native?

Katy Guest
The Public Accounts Committee found widespread concern among civil servants that they would be victimised if they spoke out about wrongdoing  

Nikileaks explained: The sad thing about the Nicola Sturgeon saga is that it makes leaks less likely

Jane Merrick
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?