The UK's only plant for processing plutonium into new fuel for nuclear reactors is to close as a result of the Japanese tsunami, threatening the loss of hundreds of jobs, it was announced today.
The MOX site at Sellafield in Cumbria, which employs 800 workers, only had customers in Japan, where reactors have been shut down after the devastating earthquake and tsunami earlier this year.
Anti-nuclear campaigners said the plant had cost the public £1.4 billion in construction and running costs since building started in the mid-1990s, while union leaders described the closure as "ill-conceived and short-sighted".
Friends of the Earth's policy and campaigns director Craig Bennett said taxpayers were footing the bill for the "Alice-in-Wonderland economics" of the nuclear industry."
The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) said there had been a "changed risk profile" for the Sellafield Mox Plant (SMP) following the Japanese disaster which crippled the Fukushima nuclear reactors.
"In order to ensure that the UK taxpayer does not carry a future financial burden from SMP the only reasonable course of action is to close SMP at the earliest practical opportunity.
"The decision to close SMP is no reflection on the SMP workforce which has continued to improve SMP operating performance.
"The NDA will work closely with Sellafield Limited in order to, where possible, mitigate the employment impacts from this decision, including the potential for redeployment given the level of activity planned across the site over coming years in the new Sellafield Plan."
Following news of the closure, shadow energy and climate change secretary Meg Hillier called on the Government to make a swift announcement on proposals to build a new MOX plant to process UK stocks of plutonium.
She said a decision was needed to send a signal to investors that the UK was committed to the nuclear industry and a new fleet of reactors, and to secure jobs.
The Government launched a consultation earlier this year into whether the best solution for UK stocks of civil plutonium, created by past nuclear power generation and housed at Sellafield and Dounreay, was to reuse it as a fuel.
The consultation looked at the possibility of building a new MOX plant, potentially at Sellafield, because it would be a cheaper option than using the existing facility which was beset by operational difficulties in the past.
Ms Hillier said: "The Government needs to announce promptly what it's going to do.
"One would hope it's going to back a new MOX plant and I can't see why they wouldn't put it at Sellafield given the expertise already there. It would be crazy to start all over again."
Officials said they would be making an announcement on the plans "in due course".
Former chief scientist Professor Sir David King has recommended recycling used nuclear fuels to generate more power as a way of offsetting the costs of cleaning up the legacy of the UK's ageing nuclear power plants.
His study, whose publication was delayed by two weeks by the crisis at the Fukushima plant, said that the legacy of the old plants needed to be dealt with alongside a new generation of nuclear reactors.
The Government has set out eight sites it considers suitable for new reactors around the country, including at Sellafield.
Mike Graham of the Prospect union said: "We are dismayed at the way this announcement has been made, without consultation with the unions, and without properly considering the way forward after its closure.
"The Government's energy policy national statements and energy market reform white paper mean that new nuclear build in the UK is fast becoming a reality.
"Prospect has always argued that if the existing MOX plant were to be closed, it should only be on condition that a new and more efficient plant is built at Sellafield, which could help to both reduce Britain's civilian plutonium stockpile and fuel its new reactors."
The union said it will press for workers to be found alternative jobs on the Sellafield site, adding it would be "madness" to lose their specialist skills at a time of expansion in the nuclear industry.
Unite national officer Kevin Coyne said: "This is a shocking and frankly bizarre decision. The Government is currently deciding whether to give the go-ahead for building a new MOX plant. So where is the rationale in closing the current one now?
"We want the Government to intervene to stave off the closure until a final decision has been made on the future of MOX."
Keith Hazlewood, national officer of the GMB union, said: "The announcement is a devastating blow for the nuclear industry and the local community of Cumbria."
The GMB said it needed a commitment to build a new "MOX plant 2" at Sellafield that can deal with demand for nuclear fuel from UK and Japan in future years.
Kate Hudson, general secretary of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, welcomed the closure, saying: "This hopefully marks the long-overdue end of a dangerous and expensive mistake. The MOX plant has cost the public over £1.4 billion yet has produced less fuel in its whole lifetime than it was meant to make every two months.
"The whole idea of shipping hundreds of tonnes of plutonium-rich spent fuel half way round the world from Japan was madness from the start. Just 11kg of plutonium is enough to make a bomb, so to build a whole business on its transport across thousands of miles of sea on lightly-armed civilian ships was a disaster waiting to happen."
Jim Footner, head of climate and energy campaigns at Greenpeace, said: "Today, 600 skilled workers have paid the price for a nuclear disaster, not of their making, on the other side of the world."
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