Renew On Line (UK) 32
Extracts from the July-August
2001 edition of Renew
|Welcome Archives Bulletin|
25 years on, we are still no closer to finding a solution to the nuclear waste problem. The collapse, in 1997, of the Nirex proposal to build an underground store for waste at Sellafield, has left UK nuclear waste policy in disarray. The proposal was the subject of a five month public inquiry which ended in February 1996. On 17th March 1997, the then Secretary of State for the Environment, John Gummer, rejected Nirexs planning application. He justified his refusal saying that he remained concerned about the scientific uncertainties and technical deficiencies in the proposals presented by Nirex [and] about the process of site selection and the broader issue of the scope and adequacy of the environmental statement.
The new Labour Government, elected shortly after Gummers decision, was therefore confronted with the need for a new policy on nuclear waste management. It promised a wide-ranging consultation on nuclear waste management, but this has been continuously postponed. With an election in the offing it was presumably seen as too contentious.
To add to their problems, a report by the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology suggested that the 60 tonnes or so of plutonium stockpiled at Sellafield should be categorised as a waste. That would mean that the raison detre for reprocessing- extracting the plutonium from spent fuel - would disappear. Reprocessing is of course the main source of the bulk of the medium and low level wastes - and environmentalists argue that its far better and cheaper just to store the spent fuel. Even British Energy now agree that reprocessing is an expensive option- and want to shift to dry storage. See Safe Energys views on THORP and Magnox reprocessing in the Technology section of Renew 132.
For the moment though, BNFL still seem convinced that they can keep on reprocessing and sell the plutonium, mixed with uranium, as Mixed Oxide Fuel. However, the existing MOX fabrication plant at Sellafield is still closed after the Japanese fuel data falsification episode, and, it seems, a decision is still pending from the DETR about whether or not to authorise the opening of the new Sellafield MOX Plant. The DETR has to assess whether the benefits of opening the plant, in terms of profits, outweigh the disbenefits of producing yet more nuclear waste. According to Safe Energy it is still extremely uncertain that the plant will obtain sufficient business to justify its opening. Its main customer was expected to be Japanese utilities, but as yet, none of them have signed any contracts to buy MOX fuel.
An independent market assssment was a bit more optimisic, but if selling MOX overseas does prove unviable, the industry seems to think that one option for reducing the UKs plutonium mountain is to build special plutonium (or MOX) burning reactors here. Chapelcross and Sellafield would be the obvious sites which BNFL might choose.
Bill Wilkinson, president of the British Nuclear Industry Forum, told a conference in Brussels last October that two new 1200MW reactors would take 25 years to convert 90 tonnes of plutonium into radioactive spent fuel, which cannot easily be used for weapons. Because the reactors would also generate power, he claims they would save more than £1 bn compared with developing a technology to render the plutonium unusable for weapons purposes - a concept called "immobilisation".
BNFL has it seems been examining designs for suitable reactors. Sue Ion, BNFLs Vice President for operations and technology, told Nucleonics Week (Nov. 2) that the companys preferred option was to license Westinghouses AP-600 technology, in a larger AP-1000 version, for construction in the UK. BNFL also now owns the ABB System 80 PWR, also designed to use 100% MOX. But Ion acknowledged that BNFL would require support from the UK Government to build the new reactors for Pu disposal.
The idea of building a new reactor at Sellafied went down very well in the area. The local Whitehaven News (Nov.2) talked of four thousand new jobs if BNFL went ahead with plans to build a new nuclear reactor at Sellafield to replace Calder Hall. It added that earlier the company had spent £30 m exploring the feasibility of building a large PWR at both Sellafield and its sister power station at Chapelcross just over the border and noted that preliminary talks on the proposal have taken place between BNFL managers and Copeland councils Tory group leader. However, during a Parliamentary debate on the proposed privatisation of BNFL, Dr. Jack Cunningham, the local Labour pro - nuclear MP, insisted that BNFL has no plan to build even one new nuclear power station at Sellafield - let alone two plutonium-fuelled ones. He went on the company has not even discussed potential plans to build such a station and added I have a letter from the director of the Sellafield site saying the same thing; there are no plans and there have been no discussions about plans. Perhaps the fear was that the prospects of extra public expenditure on this project would make the proposed public private partnership deal even less likely.
But in any case, most environmentalists prefer the plutonium immobilisation option, because they regard it as safer than building plutonium-burning reactors and continuing with reprocessing- after all both of these activities produce wastes. Moreover, as New Scientist noted (Nov.11), Mike Sadnicki, a nuclear consultant, has argued that the industry may have got its economics wrong. There is a "strong possibility", he says, that immobilising plutonium will be cheaper than recycling because of the high capital costs of new reactors.
Nucleonics Week (Nov 2, 2000) reported in detail on Sadnickis work (with Fred Barker) which was financed by the U.S.-based MacArthur Foundation. One immobilisation option is the can-in-canister vitrification technique being developed in the U.S. for disposition of excess weapons plutonium. However, Sadnicki and Barker saw this as an expensive technique and, instead, interestingly, favoured the use of BNFLs Sellafield MOX Plant to make a MOX ceramic, similar to fuel, but not meeting fuel specifications, that could be safely stored and eventually disposed of.
* Much of the above was abstracted from the Safe Energy e-journal No.17 Nov-Dec 2000 See www.kare-uk.org
EU £800m for Nuclear?
The European Commissions proposals for a new framework research programme, planned for 2002-2006, which will go ahead pending agreement by EU ministers, include E700 million for work on thermonuclear fusion, along with E330 m for Euratom nuclear studies, to be carried out by the EUs Joint Research Centre, and covering subjects such as nuclear safety and security; measurements, reference materials, and the transformation of waste. There is also E150 m for work on the treatment and stocking of nuclear waste as well as E50 million for general Euratom actions, including radio-protection, safety and training. This adds up to over 1200 m euros, about £800 m over 5 years, or £160 m a year. Some of this work, for example on waste and clean up activities, is needed, but given that the UK government has indicated that it wanted to rethink its commitment to fusion, will the UK veto this proposal?
In the Rest of Renew 132
In a special bumper 36page issue, the Feature, by Tam Dougan, looks at the Future of Agriculture and rural renewal, with diversification into renewables being one option. We also look at Technology and Risk with review s of TRUSNETs analysis and of the work of the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology. There is also a review of nuclear waste storage options. Our Technology section also looks at plans for a novel wind powered hydrogen gas grid in NE Asia ( the subject of a new NATTA report see below) and at the Vortec shrouded wind turbine. Our review report of Greenpeaces study of offshore wind impacts. And our Groups section includes a report on the work of the Cabinet Offices Performance and Innovation Unit.