The Guardian (London)

January 12, 1999

Defect closes BNFL plant

Blockage in radioactive waste pipe causes second shutdown of Thorp

By Paul Brown, Environment Correspondent

British Nuclear Fuels has had to abandon its production targets for this year after a blocked pipe forced it to shut its pounds 1.8 billion reprocessing plant in Cumbria. The company admitted yesterday that the plant had been out of operation since December 17. A blocked pipe full of radioactive waste in the area of the plant also developed a leak in April last year. That problem kept the plant out of production for five months, although the company says the problem discovered last month is far less serious.

This is the first time in four years of troubled operations that BNFL has publicly admitted that it will not meet a target for the Thorp plant. It had hoped to shear and dissolve 900 tonnes of spent nuclear fuel this financial year.

This is a blow to the state-owned company's finances because payments come from customers when the spent fuel is fed into Thorp and again when it is fully reprocessed. With 8,000 employees on the site to pay, and both Thorp and the older Magnox reprocessing works out of commission for refurbishment for months earlier this year, BNFL's revenue will be severely depleted. The company's claim that it would reprocess 7,000 tonnes of spent fuel in Thorp during the first 10 years of operation to attain a pounds 500 million profit target has long been doubted by the environmentalist lobby. The profit figure was the main justification given by the Conservative government for opening the plant in the first place.

By April last year, four years after the plant opened, it had managed only 1,455 tonnes of throughput instead of the 2,800 tonnes required to keep up the annual average.

To make up the shortfall, BNFL said it would reach a 900- tonne throughput this year and every year for the following five years.

To meet the target the company was dissolving up to 7 tonnes of spent fuel a day until December 17 when the blockage developed and the 'head end' plant had to be closed. By last night, 175 tonnes of production had been lost. Attempts were being made to unblock the pipe yesterday after successful trials on a test rig set up by the company in a laboratory. In a statement yesterday, Neil Baldwin, head of reprocessing operations said: 'Unfortunately, Thorp has been unable to shear (spent fuel) over the Christmas period and, although the present problem will be overcome, the stoppage has been sufficient to put this year's production target out of reach.' He still claimed that the overall target of 7,000 tonnes in 10 years would be achieved but this would push the plant well beyond the original design and production schedule.

This latest fault has come at a difficult time for the company, as ministers are scrutinising two controversial applications for the site. One is for a new discharge licence for radioactivity, which has encountered many objections, and the second is to open an additional pounds 200 million facility to make plutonium fuel. This is attached to the Thorp plant at Sellafield and takes the plutonium straight from reprocessing. The new fuel is then exported back to the original owners. The process is the only potential market for plutonium stocks, which are already at very high levels.

So far the company has not revealed the size of any contracts it has for the plutonium fuel, and its detractors say the the plant will never take pounds 200 million in orders and should not be opened because it will not make a return on capital.