Decision soon on new UK MOX plant

14 January 2011

A decision by the UK government on whether to construct a new mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel plant to replace the existing one at the Sellafield nuclear complex is expected to be made before the end of 2011. 


SMP (Sellafield Ltd)
The existing Sellafield MOX plant (Image: Sellafield Ltd)

A cost-benefit analysis of a new MOX plant has been commissioned,

Lord Jonathan Marland, Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) parliamentary undersecretary of state, told the House of Lords Grand Committee. It comes as the country prepares to face other questions concerning the back-end of the fuel cycle.


Speaking on 13 January during a debate on the UK's national policy statement on nuclear power, he told the committee: "If we have the biggest plutonium stock in the world, we must turn that liability into an asset." Marland added, "We have already had a write-round to the cabinet to ensure that we can perhaps go further on that plant. I hope that I will be able in the next few months to give much stronger assurances as to its prospect. It is madness to have it sitting there if we can make it a non-cost exercise."


Marland said that the issue of the new MOX plant "can be resolved easily within this year - I hope within the first half of it." He noted, "A huge amount of work is going on. You do not do a cabinet write-round, as far as I understand, unless you are fairly committed to making something happen."


MOX nuclear fuel allows uranium and plutonium to be recycled as part of what is called a closed fuel cycle strategy that reduces waste and prolongs fuel supplies. The reprocessing that separates re-usable uranium and plutonium from wastes takes place at Sellafield's Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant (Thorp).


Referring to the existing Sellafield MOX Plant (SMP), Marland warned, "We must remember that we have failed at this once already. We have a MOX plant that was not fit for purpose, so we must get it right - it is very important, with new technologies, that we do that." He added, "The next generation of nuclear waste reprocessing has to carry us forward for years to come as we replace the current existing plant."


The construction of the existing MOX plant at Sellafield was completed in 1997 but, due to a lengthy justification process, operation did not commence until 2001. The plant produced its first fuel assembly suitable for export in 2005, but was then downrated to 40 tonnes per year from its 120 tonne design capacity. In August 2009, it was reported that SMP had produced only 8 tonnes of fuel (24 assemblies) in eight years.


However, in 2010, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) and ten Japanese utilities agreed on a plan to refurbish the SMP, and this work is being undertaken over three years by Sellafield Ltd, using technology from France's Areva. A new rod manufacturing line is being installed at the SMP which, as well as improving overall performance, will ultimately replace the existing one.

The NDA's Sellafield site – including the SMP - is managed by Nuclear Management Partners, a consortium of URS of the USA, AMEC of the UK and Areva.


Lord O'Neill of Clackmannan, who is also chairman of the Nuclear Industry Association, commented: "It should be stressed that at least some of the constituent members of the nuclear management partnership which is currently responsible for a large part of the waste management at Sellafield have considerable experience of running successful MOX plants elsewhere in the world." He added, "One of our problems was that we wanted to have a plant with a Union Jack wrapped round it when we built it. We did not quite get it right and it never operated, but there are people close at hand who can do the job if they get the right deal."


To this Marland responded, "As the noble Lord will know, I have enjoyed the fine wines of the south of France while visiting the MOX plant down there to make sure that we do this properly. Of course, part of our discussions involved meeting the Areva board to do that."


As well as the fate of the 100 tonnes of civil plutonium in the UK and its potential inclusion in MOX fuel, discussion continues over the future of Thorp. In short, the country's entire strategy on the back-end of the fuel cycle is up for review.

A document released in March 2010 highlighted that Thorp would require refurbishment or replacement to handle the complete inventory of used nuclear fuel it was built to process - all that coming from the fleet of Advanced Gas-cooled Reactors as well as international contracts. Some 6600 tonnes of AGR fuel remains outstanding, with options for storing it unclear until a permanent repository is available in about 2075.


Researched and written

by World Nuclear News