Thorp products may be sent in advance of recycling

15 June 2007

Uranium, plutonium and wastes that would result from used nuclear fuel recycling at Thorp could be sent in advance to international customers.

The UK Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) has begun a six-week public consultation on a proposal by plant owners the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA), which would ease customers' tension over unfulfilled recycling contracts.

Thorp (Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant) is a facility at Sellafield which separates reusable uranium and plutonium in used nuclear fuel from wastes. Thorp processes used fuel from light water reactors in Europe and Japan before all materials are returned to their owners. It also handles used fuel from Advanced Gas-cooled Reactors in Britain.

In 2005 it was discovered that a small pipe had fractured within Thorp in a highly radioactive cell. Because it would have been very difficult to repair the pipe, engineers devised a new operating process which was subsequently approved by regulators the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate in January this year. World Nuclear News understands that operators British Nuclear Group Sellafield are preparing Thorp for restart, but experiencing some problems concerning evaporators unrelated to the pipe break.

The two-year outage has led to a backlog of work, which the NDA now hopes to relieve somewhat. Because nuclear materials are fungible - that is, like materials can be exchanged - the NDA has proposed to send equivalent quantities of plutonium, uranium and vitrified waste from UK stockpiles while Thorp is not in operation.

An NDA statement said it would support such an exchange when there is "specific justification that requires it and where it is satisfied that doing so would be of economic benefit to the UK."

DTI approval is necessary because the government's 2002 white paper, Managing the Nuclear Legacy, requires approval from the secretary of state for any changes to existing contracts at Thorp.

The NDA said: "The proposal would guarantee the availability of nuclear materials to overseas customers on a timescale that meets their needs and which best facilitiates the timely return of waste, plutonium and uranium."

The DTI consultation on the proposal runs until 26 July.

Further information

Department of Trade and Industry
Nuclear Decommissioning Authority

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