The much trailed debate on the 140 tonnes of UK-owned plutonium stockpiled at Sellafield took place today at Westminster today 14th June 2016. In the event the word ‘debate’ was a complete misnomer as the half-hour session consisted of a 20 minute impassioned plea from the Copeland MP and a 10 minute response from MP Andrea Leadsom, Minister of State at the Department of Energy & Climate Change (DECC). There was no debate.
In his plea to Government to come to a quick decision on a new Mixed Oxide Fuel (MOX) fabrication plant at Sellafield , Jamie Reed reminded the Minister of State -and the meagre handful of other attendees – that in the immediate wake of the 2011 closure of the failed Sellafield MOX Plant (SMP) – a new facility had been promised by Government, that there were consequences in delaying a decision on the MOX re-use of plutonium which he described as a ‘powerful asset’, and that no community (West Cumbria) was so reliant on the nuclear industry.
In her response, the Minister of State began with the now customary Government ‘love-in’ with Sellafield, its workforce and all things nuclear before moving onto the thorny problem of plutonium disposition. She made it clear that all options for plutonium under consideration by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) – treating it as a waste product, re-using it as MOX in LWR or CANDU reactors or for fuelling the PRISM fast reactor – currently suffered not only from ‘insufficient understanding’ but also from varying degrees of maturity. Whilst assuring Jamie Reed that all options will lead to new jobs, she emphasised that a Government decision on a new MOX plant ‘can’t and won’t be taken quickly’. Pointing out the need to learn lessons from the multi-million dollar overspend being incurred at the Savannah River MOX plant in the US, she promised that the finally selected option for the UK’s plutonium ‘must offer best value for UK taxpayers’.
In effect, the Minister of State’s response simply mirrrored the NDA’s latest update on plutonium management announced just two months ago – that a decision on a new MOX plant or other option was unlikely to be made for a further decade. There is some surprise therefore, from observers outside todays ‘debate’, that those recent NDA findings had not registered with the Sellafield MP.