UK Separated Plutonium Management - A New Sellafield MOX Plant?

On 7 February 2011 the UK Government opened a public consultation into the "long-term management of the UK's stock of separated civil plutonium". According to the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) consultation paper, the UK currently holds 112 tons of civil separated plutonium including 28 tonnes of material belonging to overseas customers. There are currently no reactors operating in the UK that can use plutonium-bearing fuels. In fact, after the abandoning of the fast breeder reactor technology in the early 1990s, the UK has continued to reprocess without any identified destination of the generated plutonium increasing the national stockpile to 84 tons.

DECC states in the consultation paper that "the UK Government believes that there is sufficient information available now to make a high level judgement as to the right strategic policy option". The three basic options that have been identified being continued long-term storage, immobilization followed by final disposal and MOX (mixed oxide) fuel fabrication and use in UK or overseas reactors. Rather than continuing to pursue all options "with equal vigour", the consultation document proposes adopting a "preferred solution, or preliminary policy view": the MOX route. DECC considers that the strategy is "based on proven mature technology that could be deployed on a reasonable timescale" and that "it demonstrates to the international community that the UK Government recognizes the security and non-proliferation sensitivities of plutonium."

The UK Government argumentation is somewhat surprising considering the fact that the currently "operating" Sellafield MOX Plant (SMP) has a lifetime load factor around 2%, never reached full operational state and is likely to have to be shut down permanently. The major owners of separated plutonium in Europe, the UK Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) and Electricité de France (EDF) - the latter also owns British Energy's share of the UK plutonium -allocate a zero value to their plutonium stock. On the nuclear fuel market, separated plutonium has a negative value (a Dutch utility had to pay EDF to take over its plutonium). With no reactors in the UK and no commercial interest from foreign utilities, one wonders where the clients for MOX fuel shall come from. From a security angle, the MOX fuel strategy involves numerous shipments of weapons usable material, since plutonium can be chemically separated from fresh MOX fuel.