Plutonium to MOX: "Repeating Mistakes of the Past"

Guest contribution by Martin Forwood

The UK Government's preference to convert Sellafield's 112 ton plutonium stockpile into MOX fuel will come as little surprise to seasoned observers who, by now, are accustomed to the preoccupation of successive Governments to repeat the mistakes of the past. Given the UK's abject failure recently to successfully produce MOX fuel at Sellafield's much vaunted MOX plant SMP - with taxpayers shelling out an estimated €90 million (US$147 million) per year to prop up a plant that produced 15 tonnes of MOX fuel in 9 years of operation - the experience should at least have triggered alarm bells in the corridors of power that the proposal was likely to join the many other fiascos that litter the UK nuclear industry's record.

Whilst the 3-month public consultation launched by the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) on 7 February 2011, invites comments on the alternative management options of immobilisation of plutonium prior to direct disposal or its continued long-term storage, the public will be left in little doubt that the 'convert to MOX' preference is probably an already done deal - though implementing it will be a completely different ball game.

On the face of it, the proposal is that once converted to MOX, the stockpile (or at least that portion that is not too old or chemically contaminated) will provide the feedstock for the new generation of reactors optimistically expected to be operating in the UK sometime in the 2020's or, as an alternative, sold off to foreign utilities. The flaws in the suggestion are numerous:
Firstly, there can be no guarantee that new reactors will actually get built in the UK and secondly, the intention for the AP1000 & EPR reactors currently being assessed by the Regulators for deployment in the UK is that they will not be licensed to burn MOX. Thirdly, the confirmation by Government that its preference to convert the plutonium stockpile to MOX is primarily an expedient way of getting rid of the material rather than offering reactor fuel as a viable commercial option, raises the matter of who will finance the construction and operation (30 years) of a new MOX plant at Sellafield at an estimated cost of some €6 billion ($10 billion)? Will it be French company AREVA who expressed an interest in such a facility in 2009 or as many believe, will it be yet another black hole for UK's hard-pressed taxpayers' money?

Early days yet maybe, but the battle lines are already drawn - not only on the grounds of cost and the technical ability to make the proposal work, but also on the social impact the proposal will have on an area desperately trying to shed its already tarnished nuclear image. True, West Cumbria's nuclear hounds - industry workers, their Trades Unions, Member of Parliament and Local Authorities will be delighted to add a new MOX plant to their wish list which currently includes new reactors at Sellafield, an underground waste dump and, yes, more reprocessing. Conversely, many in the local community will see the proposal as not only a step too far but also as a backwards step down a path already trodden and found to lead nowhere.