Since the £2.8Bn Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant (THORP) was opened in 1994 – with the usual razzmatazz from its then owners British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL), Sellafield’s ’flagship’ reprocessing plant has lost some 1000 tonnes of business contracted by overseas customers.
Prior to its opening in March 1994, in facing off legal challenges about THORP’s commercial viability, BNFL confirmed that it had secured overseas contracts amounting to 5334 tonnes of Light Water Reactor (LWR) spent fuel from utilities in Japan, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Spain, Sweden and Holland. A majority of this fuel was scheduled for reprocessing, along with UK’s Advanced Gas Cooled Reactor (AGR) fuel in THORP’s first 10- year ‘Baseload’ period with the remainder of overseas fuel (contracted from German utilities only), scheduled for the plant’s subsequent ‘Post-Baseload’ period – an order book that BNFL confidently predicted would be swelled by further overseas contracts. In the event, no new overseas contracts were ever won.
Today, following information requests from CORE, Sellafield Ltd has confirmed that a total of 4373 tonnes of overseas fuel is expected to have been reprocessed by the time THORP completes all existing overseas contracts in 2016 – a shortfall of almost 1000 tonnes on the plant’s original order book. The latest figures show that a total of 4189 tonnes of overseas spent fuel has been reprocessed to date, with a further 184 tonnes still to be reprocessed and mostly of German origin. Some 50% of this balance is expected to be dealt with this financial year 2014/15, and the remainder in 2015/16.
Despite Sellafield’s reluctance over the years to divulge details either of the ownership or volumes of overseas fuel reprocessed in THORP or the status of the contracts, it is known that a majority of the lost business occurred following an amendment to Germany’s Atomic Law in the late 1990’s which allowed the utilities to abandon reprocessing and opt instead for the long-term storage of the fuel at the power stations in Germany. CORE’s figures show, for example, that of 787 tonnes contracted for THORP’s Post-Baseload, little over 100 tonnes was actually transported from Germany to Sellafield by 2005 – the cut-off date after which such transports were prohibited.
The loss of almost 1000 tonnes – or 20% – of THORP’s originally secured overseas business, coupled with the undisclosed costs of two decades of accidents and equipment malfunctions that required repair, replacement and/or reconfiguration, must have significantly impacted on the profitability of a plant touted in 1994 as expected to generate £9Bn for UK plc. This optimistic financial forecast was based on an economic analysis whose details were kept secret on the grounds of commercial confidentiality and lead to the then Government’s conclusion that THORP’s projected economic benefit justified the radioactive discharge, health effect and other projected reprocessing detriments.
That Government conclusion appears as shaky today, if not more so, as it did in 1994 – particularly when the most recent reprocessing schedules for THORP are factored into the financial equation. For at a meeting of a local Sellafield Stakeholder Group sub-committee meeting earlier this year, it was confirmed that whilst the overseas fuel contracts would be completed by 2016, THORP’s operation for the remaining two years to closure in 2018 would see only UK’s Advanced Gas Cooled Reactor (AGR) fuel being reprocessed – a practice never previously identified by the industry in any of its projections or source material.
The issue of why AGR spent fuel had to be reprocessed at all has been raised with the industry on numerous occasions in the past. It featured as a major topic of debate by the various Working Groups of the BNFL Stakeholder Dialogue process in the early 2000’s, following which the then BNFL THORP Director confirmed that ‘whilst stocks of overseas fuel remained to be reprocessed, technical considerations dictated that both fuel types would continue to be pushed through THORP’ but that ‘it was not economic to continue reprocessing AGR fuel once all overseas LWR fuel had been done’.
Sellafield Ltd now however denies that this is the case, though it remains unclear why an uneconomic operation should suddenly become economic. This especially as, rather than being financially driven, the primary reason for reprocessing AGR fuel today is to keep it moving through the system so as to maintain sufficient storage pond capacity available at Sellafield to accept the weekly rail imports of spent fuel from the AGR power stations. Without this spare capacity, and suffering from highly limited storage at their own sites, the AGR stations would be forced to reduce electricity generation levels or close down altogether.