The latest figures from Sellafield Ltd show that both magnox (B205) and oxide (THORP) reprocessing plants again failed to meet their respective annual targets. In a presentation to the site’s local stakeholder working group on spent fuels (29th April) the Company maintained however that the currently scheduled ‘end of reprocessing’ dates – ‘around 2020’ and 2018 respectively – would be met. In a reference to the written evidence submitted by CORE to the Government’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) last year*, the Company also admitted that, for magnox reprocessing particularly, it would be setting ‘more realistic targets’ in the future.
Also giving a presentation to the working group was a representative from the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) who outlined the currently running public consultation on plans to deal with around 30 tonnes of ‘difficult’ spent fuel held at Sellafield and Dounreay through Virtual Reprocessing.
Magnox Reprocessing in B205.
For the ninth successive year B205 missed its annual target – reprocessing 470 tonnes from the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) target of 664 tonnes for 2013/14. The failure was blamed on an extended outage last summer and the ‘blockage’ accident earlier this year which forced the plant to close from 23rd February to 16th April. (see CORE Briefing 04/14).
Setting a target of 529 tonnes for the current financial year 2014/15, Sellafield Ltd has calculated that if achieved by the ageing plant, which is now half a century old, such an annual rate would see the reprocessing of the remaining 2970 tonnes of magnox fuel completed by the scheduled 2020 closure date, though it recognised that the frailties of the reprocessing plant itself and of some associated facilities offered no guarantee on the final closure date being met. The previously published 2017 closure date now appears to have been completely abandoned. A routine 8-week outage for the plant is scheduled for this coming summer and a 16-week outage scheduled for 2016 to coincide with and enable plant connection to the new HLW evaporator ‘D’.
Oxide Reprocessing in THORP.
From its annual target of 423 tonnes for 2013/14, THORP completed only 346 tonnes. The target for this current financial year (2014/15) has been set at 439 tonnes. A similar level has already been set for each year up to the plant’s scheduled closure in late 2018. For a plant designed to reprocess 1200 tonnes per year, this low projected annual throughput of around 400 tonnes reflects the catalogue of technical problems and accidents that have dogged THORP since it started operating in 1994 – the 2005 leakage accident (which closed the plant for over 2 years) resulting in irreparable damage which, in one stroke, reduced future throughput performance by some 50%.
The amount of overseas oxide fuel still to be reprocessed in THORP remains unquantified by Sellafield Ltd (a response currently awaited by CORE). The company did however confirm that out of last year’s total of 346 tonnes reprocessed, around 70 tonnes was overseas fuel. Previous figures suggest that an estimated 150-175 tonnes of overseas fuel remain to be reprocessed and that a majority of this comes from German utilities.
Virtual Reprocessing – moving the goal posts.
In the general scheme of things, DECC’s currently running public consultation on ‘the management of overseas origin nuclear fuels held in the UK’ relates to a somewhat insignificant amount of nuclear fuel – just 30 tonnes out of the 5000 tonnes that have been contracted for reprocessing in THORP over the years by overseas customers. Yet the insignificant volume of fuel masks a highly significant U-turn by Government on its decades-old spent fuel reprocessing policy.
The 30 tonnes of spent fuel in question is described as including prototype, experimental, MOX fuel and fuels that have been subject to Post Irradiation Examination (PIE). From a document previously leaked to CORE which provides details of THORP’s order book, it can be shown that of the 28 tonnes of difficult fuel held at Sellafield, 25 tonnes is in the form of spent MOX fuel assemblies from Germany’s Unterweser nuclear power station. Further candidates may include small volumes of research reactor fuel from Germany’s Karlsruhe MFZR facility, Canada’s Whiteshell plant and a small number of spent fuel rods imported from Switzerland for PIE in 2001.
Dounreay’s contribution to the overall 30 tonnes of difficult fuel consists of 2.1 tonnes of overseas material referred to in the consultation document as comprising 16 outstanding contracts, 13 of which (1.6 tonnes) are now owned by the UK. A settlement with the overseas customers for the 3 remaining contracts (0.46 tonnes) is currently under negotiation by the NDA. At a meeting specifically set up by CORE with the NDA in late March to clarify a number of consultation issues, it was revealed that the 16 outstanding contracts at Dounreay did not include the 5 Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) spent fuel assemblies shipped to Dounreay in 1998 from a Georgian research institute at Tbilisi in the old Soviet Union. This contract, in which the NDA has ‘no involvement’ appears destined for shipment to the US Savannah River site by the end of this year (see CORE Press Release 28th August 2013 and CORE Briefing 03/13).
If enacted, a policy of virtual reprocessing would see the ‘products’ of reprocessing (plutonium, uranium and nuclear waste) drawn from existing stocks at Sellafield and repatriated to customers without the spent fuel actually being reprocessed. Whilst such a policy has long since been advocated by NGOs – as a means of closing the reprocessing plant at the earliest possible opportunity, successive governments have routinely rejected the idea outright. That rejection was confirmed by the NDA in 2007 when, after THORP’s 2005 accident, it assessed the pros and cons of not re-starting the stricken plant – with virtual reprocessing as one option under consideration. In the event, the NDA concluded that ‘Virtual reprocessing would represent a departure from current government policy, and the terms of the reprocessing contracts…’
Now however, faced with the extra costs of actually reprocessing the 30 tonnes of difficult fuel (involving some reconfiguration of THORP) and the subsequent time delays that would extend THORP operations beyond its currently scheduled 2018 closure, Government is keen to embrace the very policy of virtual reprocessing that it has repeatedly rejected in the past. Further, to pre-empt the obvious question as to why the 30 tonnes of difficult fuel was contracted in the first place, DECC’s consultation document belatedly admits that ‘the international nuclear landscape has changed considerably since those contracts were signed’.
In response to CORE’s question at last week’s stakeholder working group meeting, DECC’s spokesman Dean Gallagher confirmed that Virtual Reprocessing was not currently Government policy, but would become so if the current public consultation (ends 28th May) produced the positive outcome the Government was seeking. Whilst this policy-making ‘on the hoof’ and without the full consultation that such a major change of policy warrants, is to be deplored, the flip-side of the subsequent virtual reprocessing of 30 tonnes of overseas fuel will force government into defending why other overseas fuel currently contracted to THORP (estimated at 150-175 tonnes) cannot be managed similarly, thereby bringing the plant’s closure significantly further forward.