Government okays Sellafield plant for commercial production of MOX fuel

Following five public consultations over four years, the Secretaries of State for the Environment and for Health have given the go ahead for the British Nuclear Fuels’ (BNFL’s) commercial production of MOX fuel for use in certain types of nuclear power station around the world.

Of the 9,000 responses to the Government’s consultations regarding fuel made from mixed oxides of plutonium and uranium separated from spent fuel reprocessed mainly in the Sellafield Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant (THORP) (see related story and related story), 7,000 were in favour of allowing the MOX plant to operate, and only 2,000 were against.

The main environmental issues that the Government took into consideration included a conclusion that the radiological discharges from the MOX plant would be less than 1% of the total discharges from Sellafield, and the volume of plutonium-contaminated solid waste would be around 2% by volume of the total plutonium-contaminated solid waste currently stored at the Sellafield site. As a result, radiological detriments associated with the plant would be very small, with the effects on wildlife being negligible.

With regard to security, MOX fuel, which takes the form of ceramic chips, is less attractive to potential terrorists and has other safety advantages during transport, compared to plutonium oxide produced at THORP, which would otherwise have been shipped back to their customers, or to a third country for manufacture into MOX fuel or some other treatment, says the Government. The Office for Civil Nuclear Security (OCNS) has also concluded that it is satisfied that BNFL’s security arrangements at Sellafield will also be effective.

Finally, the Government is also convinced that the economic future of the plant is also secure, following a report in August by the independent research company Arthur D Little (see related story), which stated that, with significant demand from a range of countries for MOX fuel, the MOX plant would earn £216 million for the UK.

“The Secretary of State for Health and I have considered all the information relevant to the justification for the manufacture of MOX fuel, including the responses to the various consultation exercises, the report prepared by Arthur D Little Ltd and other comments received in respect of the of the SMP,” said Minister for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Margaret Beckett. “In addition to evaluating the economic case for MOX fuel and the operation of the SMP, we have also considered the wider risks and benefits involved.”

In August 1999, investigations by The Independent newspaper revealed that quality control data regarding the ceramic MOX pellets was being falsified by workers at the MOX demonstration plant at Sellafield, resulting from serious deficiencies in management at the site, leading to international fears that safety was being compromised, and a severe reduction in customer confidence (see related story). However, following improvements in management practices, and changes among top level managers, the Health and Safety Executive’s nuclear inspectorate has concluded that the company has put the episode behind it.

Before the MOX Plant can start full operation, BNFL is required under one of the conditions in its Sellafield nuclear site licence to obtain consent for plutonium commissioning from the Health and Safety Executive.

There has been condemnation of the Government’s decision from a number of quarters, including from the Irish Government, which has campaigned to prevent the plant from opening, due to fears of radioactive emissions into the North Sea. Joe Jacobson, Irish Minister of State with responsibility for Nuclear Safety, has stated that he finds the UK Government’s decision difficult to understand in the light of the US terrorist attacks. “I would have considered that the whole rationale for this energy source would have been undergoing a serious reappraisal,” he said. “It is a minimum expectation that countries with nuclear installations will now consider the full implications of the recent tragedies and the real and present danger in terms of safety and security. Instead we have a decision that now, more than ever, must be questioned.”

“The next step as far as we are concerned is to pursue our legal options,” said Jacobson.

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