The Ramsden Dock Stakeholder meeting at Barrow-in-Furness today (17th July 2014) was told that trials will be undertaken at Barrow Docks this Autumn to assess the viability of sending Dounreay fuels – already earmarked for transport to Sellafield by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) – by sea through the port’s nuclear terminal at Ramsden Dock*.
Peter Buchan of International Services (INS – a wholly owned subsidiary of the NDA) confirmed that the upcoming trials related to the ‘exotic fuels’ currently held at Dounreay.
The exotic fuels, a sub-set of Dounreay’s nuclear materials holdings now owned by the NDA, comprise a total of around 26 tonnes which include unirradiated plutonium bearing fuels, unirradiated high enriched uranium (HEU) and irradiated fuels (oxide and carbide) – some from Dounreay’s Prototype Fast Reactor (PFR).
Providing the trials at Barrow docks prove successful, sea shipments to Sellafield from Dounreay could start as early as ‘a few months after the trials’ and continue for a number of years. Whilst INS was unwilling to provide further detail of the proposed sea transports, it is assumed that the materials would be exported from the Port of Scrabster in Caithness. No indication of the vessel that might be used was given though the current front-runner must be the Oceanic Pintail – the only ship in the nuclear fleet owned by the NDA and currently undergoing ‘a major programme of refurbishment in support of future business’ at Barrow. Controversially, at the age of 27, the vessel has escaped the historic practice of retiring nuclear ships after 25 years of service.
The Port of Scrabster has been used routinely in the past for the export of Dounreay materials to Sellafield and European customers – the former risking the difficult north west Scottish waters of the Minches which extend from the Mull of Kintyre in the south to Cape Wrath in the north. Recent nuclear work at the Port of Scrabster has seen Dounreay materials returned to Belgian customers on the vessel Atlantic Osprey – a converted roll on – roll off ferry. Purchased third-hand by British Nuclear Fuels plc (BNFL), the Atlantic Osprey was transferred to NDA ownership in 2005, withdrawn from service last year after 27 years’ service and following official concerns about its safety/security, and is due to leave Barrow in August for scrapping.
In more detail, the unirradiated plutonium bearing fuels (~ 13 tonnes) includes around 2 tonnes of plutonium and is in the form of powders, pellets and pins, the majority of which is likely to require some form of pre-treatment before it can be transported from Dounreay (NDA Credible Options paper 2012). The unirradiated HEU fuel (~ 1 tonne) is in the form of oxide powders and pellets and some uranium metals and alloys. The HEU has a wide range of enrichment values ‘which present operational and disposability difficulties’.
As the final category of exotic fuels, the irradiated fuels (~ 15 tonnes) is largely made up of spent PFR fuel which has achieved very high burn-up values ‘which means it requires special handling and transportation arrangements’.
*Holding the dock trials at Barrow need not necessarily preclude the eventual use of the Port of Workington for these shipments. The port has been used in the past to import Dounreay materials including cargos of plutonium nitrate, and the export of MOX fuel from Sellafield to Europe.