Option papers for the long-term management of radioactive material produced and stored at Dounreay were published by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) in 2011 and 2012. The material, owned by the NDA, included ‘Exotic Fuels and Nuclear Material’ described as comprising unirradiated plutonium and high enriched uranium fuels and irradiated (spent) high enriched uranium fuel – the latter from the Prototype Fast Reactor (PFR) and other experimental work at Dounreay. In February this year the NDA announced that, for these exotic fuels, ‘the option for this material which best meets our objectives, is for it to be transported to Sellafield for long term management’.
Yet behind the scenes plans indicate that some of Dounreay’s exotic material – specifically the irradiated (spent) fuel assemblies containing highly enriched uranium (HEU) – may well be shipped to the United States. Such plans, conspicuous by their absence in any NDA document, originated in November 2011 with an application by NAC International (acting on behalf of the US Department of Energy) to America’s Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for authorisation ‘to package and ship from Dounreay to the Savannah River site in Aiken, South Carolina five special fuel assemblies in a one-time shipment’.
Authorisation was granted by NRC in January 2012 for the shipment to be made – up to the end of 2013 – but uncertainties about transport schedules have resulted in a further application being submitted to NRC by NAC International in June 2013 for the authorisation to be extended to 31st December 2014.
CORE’s spokesman Martin Forwood said today: ‘This covert plan has not only avoided any form of public scrutiny in the UK but also wholly contradicts the NDA’s stated preferred option of sending all Dounreay materials to Sellafield. It also raises major concerns about the trans-Atlantic transport of this highly enriched uranium which, officially described as weapons grade material, is prime terrorist material and which the NDA itself describes as requiring special handling and transportation arrangements’.
The NAC International application identifies the five spent fuel assemblies to be shipped to Savannah River as consisting of two fuel assemblies containing Uranium 235 enriched up to 95% and three fuel assemblies enriched to 12%. The fuel assemblies will be transported inside NAC International’s 22-tonne NAC-LWT transport cask designed for carrying Type B fissile material, and are likely to be shipped on the NDA-owned ship Oceanic Pintail or Atlantic Osprey via the US port of Charleston.
Though given initial consideration, the option of exporting exotic fuels for reprocessing overseas was relegated by the NDA in 2012 as a ‘Dormant’ option that required no further development \at that time. Alongside, the retention of exotic fuels at Dounreay (for further treatment), or their transport to Sellafield were highlighted as the only credible options. In February 2013 however, in announcing that sending the exotic fuels to Sellafield was indeed its preferred option, the NDA had raised the status of the overseas option from Dormant to Contingent – defined as warranting further development in case the credible option turned out to be undeliverable – with the comment that ‘a potential new route for this material has recently been identified …’
Martin Forwood added “The ‘new route’ identified by the NDA may or may not be an oblique reference to the US plans. Either way, the NDA urgently needs to level with the public as to what exactly is going on behind closed doors with this dangerous Dounreay fuel and why, in deliberately withholding details of the US plan, it has singularly failed to honour its stated commitment to transparency in its public dealings with the long-term management of Dounreay material”.
Built in the 1950’s for the production of nuclear weapons, the Savannah River site is now owned by the US Department of Energy. Materials held on site today include dismantled weapons material and a significant stockpile of spent fuel from foreign research reactors, some of which is destined to be processed into commercial reactor fuel via a mixed oxide (MOX) plant currently being constructed. The projected cost of the MOX plant has risen from $4.9Bn to $7.7Bn and, already three years behind schedule, the project is facing a reduction in funding from the US Government.