Reprocessing in UK

By Liz Westmorland, Nuclear Free Local Authorities

The Work of Nuclear Free Local Authorities

Introduction and Background

I'll begin by explaining what my organisation is and the issues we work on. Then I'll go on to talk about Dounreay and Sellafield - the UK reprocessing sites.

Nuclear Free Local Authorities is a network of around 120 elected local councils in the UK all concerned about the hazards of nuclear weapons and nuclear energy systems. These Councils believe that the risks to communities from the nuclear industry are too great. We work to highlight and expose those risks - health, safety, to the environment - and challenge the nuclear industry and our national government. In recent years we have been joined by some very active Councils from Ireland who are extremely concerned about discharges of radioactive material from Sellafield into the Irish sea.

Of course local government must work within its own areas of responsibility - we are accountable to the public and are spending public money. We must show that the nuclear processes we are challenging are a real and direct threat to local populations - obviously this is not too difficult and was shown most clearly with the Chernobyl disaster. There are some areas of the UK where the sheep are still affected by the fallout from Chernobyl and their meat cannot be marketed.

Mainly we work by disseminating information to supporting Councils who then lobby their local Members of national Parliament, raise the issue in local government organisations and respond to public consultation on nuclear issues.

Over the years, the quality of our research has proved its worth - for a long time we were out in the cold, ignored by the agencies regulating the nuclear industry. But more recently, and in particular since the Labour Government took office last year, we have had direct contact with John Battle, the Government Minister responsible for nuclear power and detailed discussions with Minister for the Environment Michael Meacher who will be making the decisions on the Sellafield MOX Plant and the future for reprocessing and radioactive waste management in our country.

Which issues do we work on:

Nuclear weapons:

Abolition 2000:

* we are closely involved with the steering group in UK and prepared and promoted the local authorities A2000 resolution.

* We commissioned a public opinion poll last year to measure views on nuclear weapons in the UK. The result - 87% felt that Britain should take the lead in negotiating global abolition of nuclear weapons - and for the first time ever a clear majority of 56% felt that Britain would be better off without nuclear weapons.

Transport of nuclear warheads

* nuclear warheads are carried on British roads from southern England to Scotland where Trident nuclear submaries are based

* we have worked to improve the emergency planning arrangements for the transport of nuclear warheads. Of course we would not wish to have them at all but there have been some (minor) improvements in arrangements and an acknowledgement that help will be required from the civil authorities if there were an accident involving a nuclear warhead.

Strategic Defence Review:

We made a detailed submission to the Government's Strategic Defence Review which Dave Knight referred to earlier.

On nuclear power:


We have worked to raise awareness of the implications of opening the Sellafield MOX Plant - drawing the attention of local authorities to the dangers of proliferation, and increases in plutonium stocks as well as transport. I shall say a little more on this later.

Management of Radioactive Waste:

NIREX, which is the Government agency given responsibility for managing Low and Medium Level radioactive waste, was refused permission to build a waste disposal facility in Cumbria, in the north west of England, and now the policy for the future management of radioactive waste in Britain is in shambles. We have raised this extensively and contributed to the Review of Radioactive Waste management currently being undertaken by our Government.

Now I'll focus on Dounreay and Sellafield, the UK's nuclear reprocessing plants.

We are against nuclear power as a principle. Our particular concerns about Dounreay and Sellafield are that as they are two of only three plants in the world which reprocess spent nuclear fuel - we are becoming the "dumping ground" for nuclear wastes from all over the world. Despite agreements to return radioactive equivalents to the countries of origin, this is often not for many years afterwards, if at all, this may well be in concentrated form and we are left with huge volumes of radioactive wastes.

DOUNREAY: on the north coast of Scotland.

This site is run by the Atomic Energy Authority. In the 1950s as an experimental research reactor, the prototype Fast Breeder Reactor was built at the site. It has a long history of bad managemnent and very poor safety and security record. As a result, all work there is now extremely controversial.

There are two reprocessing plants at Dounreay and at the moment both are closed.

The Fast Breeder Reactor closed down in 1994 and there are no plans to restart the programme. The reprocessing plant taking this fuel is also closed.

In 1993 the Atomic Energy Authority put in an application to increase radioactive discharges to air and sea from the other reprocessing plant at Dounreay. We and others made detailed objections and there were public protests. There have been consultations, gathering of information and in the meantime work has had to be stopped following radioactive contamination. There are investigations into these safety issues.

You may be aware that under European law, all new nuclear processes or variations to existing processes must be "justified" - that is that the advantages must be shown to outweigh the disadvantages before authority will be given for the new activity to begin.

Eventually the Scottish Environment Protection Agency advised the Secretary of State for Scotland that they would accept Dounreay's application - i.e.they accepted the "justification" - but they proposed much tighter limitations on discharges and insisted that waste from the commercial reprocessing of nuclear fuel from overseas should be returned to its country of origin as soon as possible "and in any event not later than 10 years". This is the first time limit return time has been specified on reprocessing contracts.

Despite this welcome breakthrough, we have continued to argue that increased radioactive discharges cannot be justified and have called for a full economic assessment of the benefits of reprocessing at Dounreay.

In summary - the application first made in 1993 by the AEA to increase radioactive discharges from Dounreay has still not been granted and because of breaches in safety the plant is now not operating at all.

Safety record

Radioactive contamination around Dounreay and its appalling safety record is the reason that the Plant is not operating at the moment. Some examples will illustrate this dire record:

* in 1977 the shaft at Dounreay containing wastes from the Plant exploded, scattering radioactive material across a wide area. This was an unknown and unrecorded cocktail of radioactive and chemical wastes. In 1997, 20 years later, it was discovered that 350sq metres of nearby public beach were contaminated with plutonium as a result of this expolosion. Last December the Government allocated 500m to empty and repackage the wastes from this shaft

* many wastes going into the shaft were encased in plaster rather than cement. These packages floated to the top of the shafts so the contractors shot holes into the packages to sink them. However, aware of the dangers of radioactivity, they suspended the snipers from a harness 10m. above the shafts. Fact is indeed stranger than fiction

* between 1984 and 1996 170 radioactive particles have been found on the beaches around Dounreay including fragments of spent highly enriched uranium fuel used in research reactors. [The SEPA said "if it (the particle) stuck in the gut, you would get an ulcer within four to six hours. There is potential for significant effects from particles like this."]

* in October 1997 fishing was banned within a 2km radius of the Dounreay discharge pipeline

* earlier this year 170 kgs of HEU from Dounreay was reported missing. It may be a question of accounting procedure, or it may be in the waste shaft which the Government has decided to empty - but we cannot really be sure.

* finally in this small catalogue of examples which illustrate the poor management and safety controls at Dounreay, the electricity cable to the Plant was severed by contractors earlier this year. There was no electricity for several hours. The site personnel could not switch on the emergency supply as no-one knew where the emergency switch was for the back-up power! Who knows what may have happened if reprocessing was actually going on.

Overseas contracts:

Following the demise of the Fast Breeder Reactor Programme, Dounreay has been actively looking for overseas reprocessing contracts to keep the Plant going. Despite its safety and operating record, a German shipment of 59kg of plutonium arrived in December 1997 by roll on-roll off ferry to be reprocessed for fabrication later into MOX fuel at Sellafield.

After much lobbying with our Australian colleagues, shipments of highly enriched uranium fuel from Australia have now been cancelled.

And of course you will know that our Government accepted 5kg of HEU fuel from Georgia for reprocessing at Dounreay. Whatever the rights and wrongs of accepting this material from a country in the midst of civil unrest, the way in which the announcement was made, following leaks and information via the New York Times, raises real concerns about openness and transparency in our Government, which was supposedly committed to more open debate and accountability. [As a result there is yet a further government committee inquiry into Donreay operations]

Finally on Dounreay - the Government announced last month that Dounreay would not take any new reprocessing contracts and would close. This is excellent news - although we must not get too carried away - they still intend to reprocess the fuel from the abandoned FBR, as well as the fuel that has arrived from Georgia and around 15 - 20 other existig reprocessing contract. The Government estimates that the Plant could close in 2006. NFLAs estimate that it is much more likely to be nearer 2010.

Sellafield and THORP

Sellafield is on the west coast of Cumbria in northern England. It is operated by British Nuclear Fuels Ltd.

There used to be 3 reprocessing plants on the site. The first closed permanently some years ago.

Current situation: the plant reprocessing fuel from Magnox reactors (B205) closed on 16 July following a leak. So far we don't know how long it will be closed for.

The huge Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant (THORP) opened in 1994 to recover plutonium and uranium from spent reactor fuel from UK AGR reactors and from overseas PWR reactors. This is also closed at the moment for 3 months. Holes have appeared in pipework caused by erosion from sharp metal 'finings' from the spent fuel casings used in fuel for advanced gas-cooled reactors in the UK. They say they will move on to reprocessing Japanese fuel.

Despite these problems with leaks, and high levels of radioactive discharges such as technetium-99 which have been found to be concentrated in lobsters around the coasts of Ireland, Sweden and Norway, BNFL applied in 1996 to increase their radioactive discharges, with particular increases in discharges of Tritium.

The aim of this was to enable THORP to increase its throughput of spent nuclear fuel.

THORP is only reprocessing around one third of what is need to make it economically viable. A recent study commissioned by Nuclear Free Local Authorities shows that THORP could fail to cover its future running costs.

* on conservative criteria (throughput 400 tonnes heavy metal per year (thm/y) THORP would lose over 100m annually

* on mid range criteria (throughput 700thm/y) THORP would still lose 7m per year

* the only way of avoiding losses is by making optimistic assumptions about key parameters.

On current throughput and safety records this optimistic assessment is most unlikely to be achieved.

It is not clear what effect this will have on the future contracts for THORP. As you may know, during its first 10 years its business was built primarily on overseas contract including 38% from Japan. But there is now a big question mark over its future.

BNFL have of course also applied to open the Sellafield MOX plant. This is being looked at separately from overall discharges from Sellafield. NFLAs argue very strongly that all discharges from the Sellafield plants must be taken together and the application to open the MOX plant cannot be considered in isolation.

[NFLAs argued

* that the information provided by BNFL was insufficient

* that the increase in radioactive discharges could not be justified in terms of the jobs it was likely to provide (200 direct and 500 indirect UK jobs)

* that it increased security risks from the transportation of MOX fuel

* and that it greatly increased the risks of nuclear weapons proliferation]

Earlier this year the UK Environment Agency, responsible for considering the justication for the MOX plant, looked at the economic case. They commissioned consultants who had previously worked for BNFL . The research was very flawed and we have strongly criticised it.

* all figures were removed and no information given on the value of contracts already secured

* no allowances were made for operational hiccups

* they assumed a secure and large MOX market

* the report withheld large amounts of information on the grounds of commercial confidentiality so it was impossible to mae an independent critique

So far, there is no decision on the application to open the MOX plant, and there is continuing pressure on our Environment Minister to open up the debate further.


Starting up the MOX plant would mean transport of MOX fuel from Sellafield by air to European destinations and by sea to Japan. An analysis of likely flight paths, highlighting the inadequacy of the Type B packaging for such materials was circulated in the UK. This caused an outcry and an investigation into the safety of these so called "plutonium flights."

[Finally, Carlisle Council, which partly owns the small airport near to Sellafield which would be used, declared that it was opposed to any proposal to increase plutonium flights.]

As you can imagine also from the world-wide protest at the 1992 shipment to Japan of 1.7 tonnes of plutonium on the Akatsuki Maru, all future shipments will also be a huge problem.

It seems that the proposal to open the SMP is, as we say, putting the cart before the horse. It's aim is to justify the continuing existence and future of the nuclear industry - irrespective of whether there is any demand for it or economic benefit, and totally irrespective of the morality of increasing security risks and the dangers of nuclear weapons proliferation. [I find it hard to believe the arrogance of an industry which can build the Plant first, before any authorisation has been given to operate it, and before there is public debate or any vindication for the work.]


Like Dounreay, there is a catalogue of safety breaches and local contamination at Sellafield. These include:

* radioactive particles found on local beaches

* local beaches closed and warning signs erected

* sea discharges from Sellafield would be classified as radioactive waste on land

* recently a large number of pigeons in a local sanctuary were found to be radioactive and had to be killed. [The topsoil removed from the sanctuary garden because of radioactive contamination carried by the pigeons]. Local people were advised not to eat pigeons in a 10km radius around Sellafield..

High Active Waste Tanks

We have been very concerned about the safety of the tanks which store highly radioactive liquid waste at Sellafield. If these were to be breached or to explode, this could lead to contamination between 10 and 100 times greater than that caused by Chernobyl. Vast tracts of land could be contaminated.

Researcher Gordon Thompson, from the Institute for Resources and Security Studies in the USA, described Sellafield's stock of liquid HLW as "one of the world's most dangerous concentrations of long-lived radioactive material." We say that reprocessing should be suspended immediately so that the current stocks of HLW can be reduced. The basic message is "If you're in a hole, stop digging."

And finally on Sellafield

Recent discussions in Portugal to implement the OSPAR Agreement have led to commitments by European Governments to reduce levels of radioactive discharges into the sea to near to zero. Britain came under a lot of pressure from Norway, Sweden and Ireland because of the Sellafield contamination of their seas.

This means that the Sellafield Magnox reprocessing line will close by 2020 and BNFL must produce a plan to reduce discharges from THORP to agreed levels by 2020. This must further threaten the economic viability of THORP.

The nuclear reprocessing industry in the UK is in a mess. (This OHP gives a very small sample of recent newspaper headlines). NFLAs and other campaign groups will continue to push to for a safe solution to the long term management of radioactive waste which is acceptable to the public. Meanwhile we campaign for a halt to reprocessing so that our problems don't continue to grow. Thank you for listening.