UK swaps plutonium to balance MOX policies

23 April 2013

CORRECTED: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the Dutch utility involved in the plutonium sawp as EPZ, owner of the Borssele plant. In fact it was GKN, owner of the shut down Dodewaard nuclear power plant. WNN apologises for this error.

A series of exchanges has seen the UK take control of three tonnes of plutonium it had been storing for foreign firms. The country's goal is to use plutonium stocks as reactor fuel for power generation.

Having embarked on a national nuclear energy and research program in the 1950s, the UK has over time separated and recovered plutonium from its used reactor fuel. The largest and most recent plant, Thorp, also undertook reprocessing for utility customers in Europe and Japan. Stockpiles of the resulting UK and foreign plutonium are all stored at Sellafield.

Today the British government announced it has simplified arrangements for managing these stocks with a series of swaps. The UK now will take over 750 kg of plutonium belonging to German utilities, 1850 kg previously loaned from France, and 350 kg from Dutch firm GKN. At the same time, 650 kg of plutonium stored at Sellafield was transferred from German to Japanese ownership. A similar deal with Germany last year saw the UK take ownership of four tonnes of plutonium. All these changes have been agreed with the Euratom Supply Agency.

Among the factors motivating the swaps were the cancellation of MOX fuel for the ruined Fukushima Daiichi 3 unit, owned by Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco), and that company's needs for MOX for other units which could not be made at Sellafield after the underperforming MOX plant there was closed in August 2011. Sellafield's European MOX customers will also have their MOX made in France instead, also contributing to today's swaps.

The swaps will save on transport jobs and give the UK the confidence of having national control over more the the plutonium stored in its territory. About 24.9 tonnes of foreign owned plutonium remains at Sellafield.

With its net gain of 2950 kg, the UK now has a civil plutonium stockpile of over 121.1 tonnes. This represents a significant energy resource roughly equivalent to 900 million barrels of oil - or even more if recycled multiple times.

However, liberating this energy is a complex challenge. Britain's "preferred option" is to mix it with uranium oxide as mixed-oxide fuel (MOX), which can be used in many power reactors around the world. This would mean building a new production facility, on which the government "cannot yet make a specific decision," it said. New reactors planned for the UK could use the MOX fuel, but the government has no right to demand this of commercial operators, at the same time the global market is limited and future demand from previous major customer Japan is highly uncertain. A move to build a new MOX plant would also be controversial, given the decision in August 2011 to close an underperforming and loss-making plant at Sellafield.

Other options are under consideration. GE-Hitachi has put forward its small Prism reactor design, which could generate power using plutonium-based fuel and at the same time get it into a form suitable for final disposal. Candu Energy has proposed its large Candu 6 units, which could run on the fuel over a longer period, generating power. Both companies are in discussion with the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, which manages Sellafield and all the UK's legacy from its previous national program.

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News