Whitehaven News


More Doubt has been cast on the future of nuclear fuel reprocessing - Sellafield's main breadwinner - by the government's radioactive waste management advisors.

All reprocessing could conceivably finish at Sellafield in the next 12 years with Thorp coming to a premature end in less than 10 years. This would send shock waves through West Cumbria, with grave employment and economic implications but BNFL believes that this is a pessimistic scenario.

Says BNFL: "Justification for reprocessing in Thorp has been seriously questioned recently on grounds of profitability. RWMAC's analysis suggests that Thorp's currently contracted work could be completed by 2010. It is true that if we do not secure additional contracts that the current workload could finish before 2009 but we are actively securing new business in Japan and Europe. There have been no cancellations of contracts with customers."

RWMAC was charged by environment minister, Michael Meacher, on behalf of government, to carry out a review of the waste management implications of BNFL's spent fuel reprocessing, which underpins thousands of Sellafield's jobs.

The review has been completed and one of RWMAC's conclusions is that the case for continuing reprocessing "needs to be fully and openly set out."

Michael Meacher and fellow ministers have been told that, at the present time, there is no alternative to the old-style Magnox reprocessing, which has been Sellafield's staple diet since the early 1950s, but BNFL should address the prospects for reprocessing over the next four years.

This is in relation to oxide reprocessing, which is being done in Thorp, which is BNFL's modern flagship plant at Sellafield.

RWMAC says that the four- year period would be to the end of Thorp's baseload contract period in 2004; in other words the first 10 years of reprocessing in the plant.

Although Thorp has a 12 billion order book, taking it into a second decade, the advisory committee discloses that the work currently under contract could be completed by about 2010 and it points out: "The lifetime of Thorp reprocessing is dictated by BNFL's ability to win commercial contracts for reprocessing, either in the UK or abroad. Statements made by British Energy, to a House of Commons Select Committee on Trade and Industry, suggests it will be difficult for BNFL to win new business within the UK.

"Recent developments abroad suggest that the acquisition of new overseas work will not be easy."

RWMAC's view is that while it is no position to judge whether or not new overseas contracts might emerge, there was a possibility that Thorp's reprocessing "may also be a time-limited activity."

Earlier reference is made to the fact that BNFL now saw the end of Magnox reprocessing, expecting to close its Sellafield B205 plant by about 2012 - two years after Thorp could close down.

However, in the light of reprocessing throughput performance in recent years, RWMAC says it doubts whether closure by then would be possible.

BNFL is being asked as a result to say how progress towards the 2012 end date will be monitored and detailed the strategy if the company fails to achieve the target throughput.

BNFL is also asked to identify the commercial implications of any shift in policy from reprocessing to storage of spent fuel.

RWMAC adds that: "given the current controversy surrounding reprocessing the case for its continuation does need to be fully and openly set out."

The government's delay in licensing the 300 million MOX plant poses another threat to Thorp's future, because the plant is needed to recycle plutonium.

BNFL says it will continue to store plutonium safely and securely, and under strict safeguards, until a future decision is made on its use. "There is no significant increasing safety risk from increases in the plutonium stockpile."

n One of the main reasons for Sellafield's armed police presence is to protect the plutonium stockpile from potential terrorist attack.