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IMechE says UK must reassess the way it deals with plutonium stocks

09 April 2013

The Institution of Mechanical Engineers has called on the UK Government to reassess its approach to dealing with the country’s huge plutonium stockpile. A new policy statement calls for new options to address the different types of plutonium stored in the UK, and highlights the urgent need for the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) to categorise these stocks.

The majority of the UK's high and intermediate level nuclear waste is stored at Sellafield in Cumbria
The majority of the UK's high and intermediate level nuclear waste is stored at Sellafield in Cumbria

Government should also consider using ‘fast reactors’ like those in development by GE Hitachi in the US and the Astrid project in France. 

Dr Tim Fox, Head of Energy and Environment at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers said:

“There are estimates that it currently costs the UK taxpayer £80 million a year to safely store the country’s 112 tonnes of civil held plutonium.

“In addition to costs, this material is highly toxic, radioactive and can be used to develop nuclear weapons, so dealing with it safely and securely is of critical importance to the nation's security. As we move forward in this country towards building new reactors, this becomes ever more urgent.

“The Government’s current plans for dealing with this stockpile are focussed on finding a single solution. This is too limited, likely to be costly to the taxpayer, and risks issues of nuclear proliferation.

“Instead, the Government should treat the different grades of plutonium in the stockpile in different ways. This means there is an urgent need for the NDA to start work on categorising and quantifying this material.

“For the part of the stockpile that is of the right grade the Government should consider using it as fuel for ‘fast reactors’ like those being developed commercially by GE Hitachi in the US and by the Astrid project in France.

“A fast reactor of this nature would help deal with a proportion of this material, effectively recycling the stockpile while generating low-carbon electricity. This type of reactor would make a small but useful contribution to UK energy security and it has been estimated that doing this could potentially generate £15 billion in its 60-year lifetime.”

The UK Government’s preferred option is to combine plutonium stocks with uranium to make a Mixed Oxide (MOX) fuel, which could then be exported, but the market for this is limited and others have similar ambitions. After use in conventional nuclear reactors, MOX leaves spent fuel in a state where the remaining plutonium is inaccessible but it will still need to be prepared for permanent geological disposal.  

The Institution proposes that once the NDA categorises plutonium stocks:
*High-grade plutonium should be considered for manufacture into MOX fuel. 
*Lower-grade plutonium should be identified for potential recycling in a fast reactor. 
*The UK Government, through the NDA, should fund modest assessment and development of the available fast reactor technologies; at this stage future licensing decisions cannot be prejudged, but the sodium-cooled fast reactor route is sufficiently attractive to merit significant immediate UK support. 
*Poor-quality material should be earmarked for safe disposal in the proposed GDF, with investment required 

The UK’s plutonium stockpile is largely the result of the country’s early nuclear programme.  

Plutonium was previously seen as a fuel for future power production. Plans also included the UK taking spent fuel from overseas reactors for reprocessing and then selling it back to its country of origin for a fee; the stockpile includes about 28 tonnes of material belonging to overseas customers. However this did not occur.

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