The prospect of plutonium transports between UK and Europe has recently been fuelled by a BNFL statement to the industry’s journal Nuclear Fuel (NF). In an article on 4th August, a BNFL spokeswoman confirmed that whilst no plutonium had yet been transported, the company was seeking ways on reaching agreement as to how plutonium transfers could be done. This follows BNFL confirmation last year, to the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA)*, that one plutonium transport was certainly proposed, and that more may follow.
The current need for BNFL to transfer plutonium has resulted partly from the slower than expected commissioning of the Sellafield MOX Plant (SMP). Because of delays at SMP, BNFL has been forced to ‘sub-contract’ two MOX fuel orders to rival manufacturers in Europe (COGEMA and Belgonucleaire) who will have used plutonium from their own customers’ stocks to manufacture the fuel for BNFL. A transfer or swap will be made at some stage to balance the companies’ and customers’ plutonium books.
Giving evidence to the PCA in October 2002, BNFL’s witness confirmed to the Court that one plutonium transport was confirmed. He added that whilst it might take upwards of 3 years to obtain the necessary approvals for the transport, BNFL had already made contact with the Office for Civil Nuclear Security (OCNS) about the transport and that OCNS had no objection in principle. Questioned about the likely size of plutonium swaps, the witness estimated that individual swaps could run to ‘hundreds of kilogrammes’ at a time.
The NF journal reported that earlier in the 2002 PCA hearing BNFL had confirmed: “to date BNFL has been unable to arrange a swap and so it is expected the transfer will be made by physical transport of plutonium from Sellafield to continental Europe. Planning is already under way for this to take place ”.
A likely form of transport will be by sea, though the prospect of one or more sea shipments of plutonium being made from Sellafield in the next few years is certain to bring immediate condemnation from Irish Sea and Scottish communities and politicians, as well as NGO’s. It will also fuel concern and raise questions about the safety and wisdom of transporting plutonium dioxide powder – a prime terrorist material – through UK and European waters at a time when terrorist activity is on the increase.
* The Permanent Court of Arbitration met in the Hague in 2002 to hear an Irish Government challenge against the UK Government’s handling of consultation matters relating to SMP.