German plutonium stays in UK

13 July 2012

A series of title swaps has seen the UK Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) take ownership of four tonnes of German plutonium. The commercial deal will enhance international nuclear security as well as earning revenue, the UK government says.

The four tonnes of plutonium is in storage in the UK and came from used fuel from power reactors sent to the UK for reprocessing by German utilities. Under the deal, an equivalent amount of plutonium will be made available in France for manufacture into mixed oxide (MOX) fuel for use in German nuclear power reactors. In this way, the need for the UK to physically transport plutonium to France is removed, with clear benefits from a nuclear security point of view: separated plutonium offers a nuclear proliferation risk, and its transport is a sensitive issue and with significant security obligations.

The UK has long provided reprocessing services to overseas nuclear utilities. The separated materials remain the property of the overseas owner, and high-level wastes plus the separated plutonium and uranium are formally required to be returned to that country. Plutonium would normally be converted into mixed oxide (MOX) reactor fuel before being returned.

Some of the German plutonium in storage in the UK had been subject to contracts for manufacture into MOX fuel in the Sellafield MOX Plant (SMP), which closed last year. Most of the plant's MOX supply contracts were with Japanese utilities, and the NDA decided to close the plant after the Fukushima accident made the future of those contracts increasingly uncertain.

The arrangements have been approved by the Euratom Supply Agency and are the subject of commercial agreements between the NDA, the German utilities and Areva. In December 2011, the UK government noted the UK would be prepared to take ownership of overseas plutonium stored in the UK, subject to compliance with inter-governmental agreements and acceptable commercial arrangements. Closure of the SMP notwithstanding, the UK's preferred policy for plutonium disposal is to convert it to MOX fuel for use in nuclear reactors.

The plutonium to which the NDA has now taken title will remain in the UK and will be dealt with as part of the UK's own inventory of stored separated plutonium, most of which is held at Sellafield. That inventory, including the material covered by the latest agreement, stands at 118 tonnes. The "financial benefits" from the title transfer will exceed the long-term costs of the material's safe storage and management, according to the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change.

'Everybody wins'

According to a statement by UK energy minister Charles Hendry, the government agreed to the take ownership of the plutonium because the agreement offered a "commercially advantageous arrangement" while enabling the German utilities to receive MOX fuel and removing the need to transport separated plutonium. He also noted that the deal would enable MOX fuel to be provided to German utilities ahead of the country's program to shut its nuclear reactors. Policy changes introduced in Germany in reaction to the Fukushima accident of March 2011 have placed end dates on German reactor operations and therefore on their capacity to use MOX fuel.

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News