Mountain of plutonium waste

The world’s largest mountain of plutonium waste is not likely to shrink anytime soon.
The UK government strategy to reduce the waste, stored at the Sellafield site in Cumbria, is based on a technology that was developed to meet the demands of the Japanese market, but the recent events in Fukushima have caused concern in Japan and have led to a freeze in the international trade of reprocessed nuclear fuel. Japanese power utilities have told Sellafield that they will be postponing indefinitely a shipment of French-made Mox nuclear fuel that would have been transported on British vessels operated on Sellafield. The shipment was destined for Chubu Electric, which was scheduled to be one of the first customers of the existing Sellafield Mox plant (SMP).

Together with nine other utilities, Chubu has also indicated that the SMP’s long-term production issues will mean that they will not accept any reprocessed fuel from the UK until at least the end of the decade, some 20 years after the plant was opened. Hence, the existing Mox plant, designed to supply more than 1000t over a decade, is expected to produce significantly less before its decommissioning. Opened in 2002, the GBP1.3bn, has so far produced just 13.8t of Mox in its nine years of operation – a far cry from the expected output of 120tpa.

Should the government press ahead with using the Mox option to reduce the stockpile, it would require a second Mox plant at the site – predicted to coast GBP3bn at discounted prices although the actual lifetime cost of the plant is expected to be closer to twice that amount. However, the alternative option of long-term storage and disposal of plutonium would land the government, and the British taxpayer, with an even larger bill.

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