UK vitrified waste returns set to begin

29 September 2009

High-level radioactive waste from used nuclear fuel sent to the UK for reprocessing will be returned to its country of origin under a program to begin this financial year, the UK's Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) has announced.
 

 Sellafield Residue Export Facility (REF) (Image: INS)
Journey's beginning: Sellafield's Residue Export Facility (REF) (Image: International Nuclear Services)

The Vitrified Residue Returns (VRR) program is the culmination of a 1986 government decision to exercise an option to return waste to its country of origin included in all UK reprocessing contracts since 1976. It follows on from a similar program to repatriate waste from reprocessing carried out in France.

The NDA, which now holds the contracts to return the high level waste to customers in Japan and Europe, has announced that plans are sufficiently advanced for the VRR to begin in the 2009-2010 financial year, subject to the necessary authorisations and detailed timings to be agreed with regulators, customers and government departments both in the UK and overseas.

Spent nuclear fuel contains about 97% of potentially reusable material. Reprocessing separates this material from a residual 3% of highly radioactive waste. The vitrification process transforms liquid high-level wastes into a solid glass form which is then encased in stainless steel canisters and packaged into flasks for transport to the country of origin. As well as stabilising the waste in a solid form more suitable for transportation, long-term storage and eventual disposal, vitrification reduces the overall volume of waste by about two-thirds. In June 2009 the Sellafield vitrification plant, operated by Sellafield Ltd on behalf of the NDA, produced its 5000th container of solidified high level waste.

The NDA's commercial transport subsidiary, International Nuclear Services, will be responsible for transporting the vitrified waste to destinations in Japan, the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland and Italy in its specially designed transport ships.

The program will see approximately 1850 containers of waste returned over a 10-year period, including some containers being returned in accordance with UK government policy on waste substitution whereby the UK returns a greater amount of high-level waste to the customer but retains a radiologically equivalent amount of low- and intermediate-level waste in the UK for long term management.

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