Plan for Sellafield clean-up in doubt
Published 11/04/2011 | 05:00
THE nuclear crisis in Japan threatens a British government plan to tackle the world's biggest mountain of plutonium waste stored at the Sellafield site in Cumbria.
Japanese nervousness about nuclear power following the near-meltdown at the Fukushima plant has led to a freeze in the international trade of reprocessed nuclear fuel that Britain sees as critical to solving its own plutonium problem.
The Irish Government has expressed its concerns over Sellafield at diplomatic and Cabinet level on numerous occasions.
The British government's preferred strategy to clear the considerable plutonium stockpile centres on a technology that was developed to meet the demands of the Japanese market. However, there are now fears that Japan is about to turn its back on the enterprise.
It was hoped that Japanese contracts with Sellafield to make mixed oxide (Mox) nuclear fuel would underpin the economic and political case to tackle Britain's plutonium stockpile with a second multi-billion-pound Mox fabrication plant on the Cumbrian site.
But Japanese power companies have told Sellafield that concerns about Fukushima have forced them to indefinitely postpone a shipment of French-made Mox nuclear fuel that would have been transported on British vessels operated from Sellafield.
The postponement is significant because the Mox shipment was not destined for the stricken reactors at Fukushima operated by Tokyo Electric, but for the unaffected Hamaoka reactors operated by Chubu Electric, the same company that was supposed to be one of the first customers of the existing Sellafield Mox Plant (SMP).
Chubu Electric and nine other Japanese power companies have also indicated that because of long-term production problems that have dogged the SMP, they will not now be taking any reprocessed fuel from Britain until at least the end of the decade -- nearly 20 years after the plant was opened to serve the Japanese market.
This would mean that the existing Mox plant at Sellafield, which was designed to supply more than 1,000 tonnes of Mox over 10 years, is likely to produce a tiny fraction of this before it is due to be decommissioned, at enormous cost to the British taxpayer.
The setback is seen as a huge blow to the business of making and selling Mox fuel, touted by the government as the best way of dealing with Britain's stockpile of civilian plutonium.
A government consultation on the stockpile ends next month but ministers have already made it clear that the "Mox option" is their preferred route, even though it would require a second Mox plant at Sellafield costing £3bn (€3.39bn) at discounted prices -- the actual lifetime cost of the plant is likely to be nearer £6bn (€6.79bn).
The existing Sellafield Mox Plant, opened in 2002, has cost more than £1.3bn (€1.47bn) to date yet has produced just 13.8 tonnes of Mox fuel in nine years, compared to an expected output of 120 tonnes per year. (© Independent News Service)