Since the Government confirmed in December 2011 that its preferred management option for the UK’s plutonium stockpile was to convert the ‘asset of zero value’ into Mixed Oxide (MOX) fuel, further progress on the option has been conspicuous by its absence. Over the intervening years the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) appears to have been concentrating its efforts on the alternative projects submitted by GE Hitachi (PRISM reactor) and Candu Energy (Canmox) – both projects being added to the list of plutonium options as an afterthought in January 2012.
Seemingly locked in a technical time-warp for the last three and a half years, the option assessment process has however been woken from its slumbers and reinvigorated in recent weeks with a press release from French company AREVA. Released on 8th July – under the headline of opening a new office at Sellafield’s satellite Science & Technology Park at Westlakes near Whitehaven – AREVA confirmed its support not only to its ongoing decommissioning and waste management work at Sellafield – but also to the development of what it describes as the AREVA Convert Project.
Further reading on this hitherto unknown project reveals that it is geared to converting ‘the nuclear material that is a potential liability (Sellafield’s plutonium) into a valuable fuel to help meet Britain’s low carbon power generation needs’. In more detail, the project is described as a full lifecycle solution including the design, construction, operation and decommissioning of a MOX plant in West Cumbria which would produce MOX fuel for use in ‘UK’s planned fleet of new generation nuclear reactors’. [http://uk.areva.com/home/liblocal/docs/Waste-Management/AREVA_CONVERT.pdf]
As customary for new nuclear project these days, the AREVA Convert Project is trailed with the usual goodies of job creation, conservation of natural uranium stocks, powering millions of homes for decades, saving millions of tonnes of CO2 etc. In addition, AREVA proudly proclaims its 40 year track record of successfully producing MOX fuel at its MELOX plant in France, and helpfully suggests that operators of its proposed West Cumbrian plant ‘would benefit from training under real operational conditions at AREVA MELOX as this would help ensure the highest standards are maintained, bringing new operators up to speed, and supporting them with technological evolutions and changes in regulations’.
To many observers this training offer is an undisguised reference to the chronic and costly failure of the Sellafield MOX Plant (SMP) in 2011 whose workforce culture was subsequently described by Government as being ‘not well suited to a precision manufacturing production facility and an unwillingness to face up to the scale of the problems facing the plant’.
No projected cost for a new MOX plant is given by AREVA (the last estimate by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority in 2011 was around £6Bn) and no mention is made of the French company’s ongoing new-build reactor fiascos in France and Finland, its financial losses that have forced its merger with state controlled EDF, its involvement with the spiralling costs and decades of delay to the AREVA design MOX plant under construction in the USA at Savannah River and – as part of the disgraced Nuclear Management Partners (NMP) consortium at Sellafield – its recent stripping of a multi £billion management contract by the NDA following spiraling budget costs and inept management of crucial projects.
Also coming back to life in early July Candu Energy announced that a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) and the UK’s Department of Energy & Climate Change (DECC) had been signed at the end of June. According to NRCan ‘The MOU will reinforce work already under way on feasibility studies related to the disposal of UK plutonium’ – a reference to Candu Energy’s proposal submitted to the NDA in January 2012 to fabricate MOX fuel (CANMOX) at Sellafield.
Whilst the UK Government’s preferred ‘re-use’ option envisaged to the use of MOX fuel in European reactors or in UK new-build reactors, the Candu Energy proposal would see the CANMOX used in ‘two or four of its EC6 reactors (a 740 MWe modern version of Candu-6) which would burn MOX fuel with about 2% plutonium’. Fabricating around 100 tonnes of CANMOX per year, Candu Energy estimates that some 4 tonnes of plutonium would be utilised per year in twin units, and believes that four of its EC6 reactors ‘could be fully built in the UK domestically’. The EC6 reactor would have to undergo the UK Regulators’ Generic Design Assessment (GDA) process which could take up to four years to complete.
In a further twist to the plutonium management options currently under NDA assessment, a World Nuclear Association news item on 3rd July states that ‘GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy Canada is working with Candu Energy to develop the CANMOX approach’. As GE Hitachi is already behind the proposal to use its PRISM fast reactor at Sellafield, it is clearly hedging its bets by being involved in two separate and technically very different projects to ‘get rid’ of the 140 tonnes of plutonium expected to have arisen at Sellafield once reprocessing operations have ended around 2020. Both projects (PRISM and Candu) will now have to compete with AREVA’s MOX proposal – and the possibility that all of the plutonium re-use options could yet be jettisoned in favour of immobilising plutonium as waste (see http://fissilematerials.org/blog/2015/06/plutonium_disposition_in_.html).
Despite a request for information submitted by CORE last week, the NDA has not yet felt able to say if or when the AREVA Convert Project had been officially submitted for assessment, or when the next NDA update/progress report on plutonium management options was likely to be published.