1,000 tonnes of THORP contracts abandoned since 1994

by Martin Forwood, with Mycle Schneider

Responding to requests for information from local group CORE (Cumbrians Opposed to a Radioactive Environment), Sellafield Ltd has confirmed that a total of 4,373 tonnes of overseas fuel is expected to have been reprocessed by the time THORP completes all existing overseas contracts in 2016--a shortfall of almost 1,000 tonnes on the plant's original 5,334-tonne overseas order book.

In detail, the Company has confirmed that 4,189 tonnes of overseas spent fuel had been reprocessed to date, with a further 184 tonnes still to be reprocessed. The latter, a majority of which is confirmed by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) as being of German origin, is projected to be reprocessed over the next two financial years 2014/15 and 2015/16.

At its opening in 1994, British Nuclear Fuels Ltd (BNFL) confirmed that Sellafield's £2.8 billion (US$4.7 billion) Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant (THORP) had secured overseas contracts amounting to 5,334 tonnes of Light Water Reactor (LWR) spent fuel from utilities in Japan, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Spain, Sweden, the Netherlands and Canada.

As the Table below shows, the majority of this overseas fuel was scheduled for reprocessing, along with UK's Advanced Gas Cooled Reactor (AGR) fuel, in THORP's first 10-year "Baseload" period. The remainder, destined for reprocessing in the Post-Baseload period, had been secured from German utilities only--an order book that BNFL confidently predicted would be swelled by further overseas contracts. That the reserved capacity of 295 tonnes--taking the Baseload total to 7,000 tonnes--was taken up by overseas customers appears likely but remains to be confirmed.


THORP Reprocessing Contracts, MTHM (Source: BNFL 1997)

Contrary to the confident prediction of new orders for THORP's Post-Baseload period being placed by overseas customers, no such new business has ever been secured and the progress of existing overseas contracts has, with few exceptions, been deliberately withheld from public scrutiny by the plant's operators on the grounds of commercial confidentiality. Other than having to admit the loss of some German contracts within just a few months of plant startup, the only public announcements have been to acclaim the completion of individual country's contracts: the Japanese in 2005, the Dutch in 2009 and Italian business due for completion in 2014. The early loss of German business can now be seen to represent the proverbial tip of the iceberg whose size has only now become clear.

The loss over the years of some 1,000 tonnes, or 20% of all overseas business originally secured for THORP, re-ignites and further challenges the viability of the economic case for the plant. The economic justification was bitterly contested by opponents in the run-up to its opening in 1994 when it was projected to generate some £9 billion (US$15 billion) for BNFL and "make a profit of at least £500M [US$840 million] during its first ten years of operation". But in keeping with Government and industry reticence to provide information on the progress of overseas contracts, there has been a similar void in publication of any form of "profit and loss" figures for THORP individually, a tactic that on the one hand allows officialdom to maintain its claim of the plant's financial viability, but on the other serves only to stoke suspicions of another White Elephant at Sellafield.

For in retrospect, the undisclosed costs of two decades of accidents and equipment malfunctions that required repair, replacement and/or reconfiguration, the delays of almost a decade in completing overseas customers' orders--plus the £500,000 (US$ 840 million) Crown Court fine for the INES Level 3 leakage of 83,000 liters of dissolved fuel in 2005--will inevitably have dented THORP's profitability despite some of these unplanned additional costs being passed on, under the "cost-plus-fee" service agreements, to overseas customers. For their part, frustrated customers had already warned BNFL in 2000 that "such cost increases and uncertainties are commercially highly unsatisfactory" especially as they were "losing confidence in BNFL's technical ability" (Base Load Customer (BLC Non-UK) Statement to BNFL, London, 18th September 2000). This justified reference to THORP's repeated failure to meet either design specification or annual throughput targets has subsequently been borne out by Sellafield's confirmation that the plant's Baseload order book was finally completed in 2012, some nine years late.

Whilst the economic and operational status of overseas contracts remains obscure, there is far less uncertainty about where the major loss of overseas business has come from. For data collated from German Government and GRS (Gesellschaft für Reaktorsicherheit) sources on the amount of spent fuel delivered to Sellafeld shows a significant reduction on the volume originally contracted. Overall, the data shows that of the combined Baseload and Post-Baseload contracts secured from eleven German power stations, just 60 percent was actually transported to Sellafield. This significant reduction is clearly tied to the late 1990's amendment to Germany's Atomic Law, which finally allowed its utilities to abandon reprocessing--which had been considered mandatory--and opt instead for the long-term dry storage of the fuel at the power stations in Germany. A further breakdown of the figures reveals that of the 787 tonnes of German fuel contracted for THORP's Post-Baseload, only 113 tonnes from Emsland had been transported from Germany by 2005--the cut-off date after which spent fuel shipments to reprocessing plants were prohibited. Given that now known overall contract loss has amounted to almost 1,000 tonnes, this loss of 674 tonnes of Post-Baseload business from Germany indicates that some Baseload contracts must also have been abandoned.

Government approval for the start-up of THORP in 1994 was based on an economic analysis whose details were kept secret on the grounds of commercial confidentiality, and its view that the plant's projected economic benefit justified all other detriments. That Government conclusion appears even more shaky today than it did in 1994, particularly when the most recent reprocessing schedules for THORP are factored into the financial equation. For at a meeting of a local Sellafield Stakeholder Group sub-committee meeting earlier this year, it was confirmed that whilst the overseas fuel contracts would be completed by 2016, THORP's operation for the remaining two years (to plant closure in 2018) would see only UK's Advanced Gas Cooled Reactor (AGR) fuel being reprocessed, a practice that had never previously been identified by the industry in any of its projections or source material.

Indeed, the issue of why AGR spent fuel had to be reprocessed at all has been raised repeatedly with the industry in the past and featured as a major topic of debate by the various Working Groups of the BNFL Stakeholder Dialogue process in the early 2000's. In subsequent follow-up meetings, the then BNFL THORP Director confirmed that "whilst stocks of overseas fuel remained to be reprocessed, technical considerations dictated that both fuel types would continue to be pushed through THORP" but that "it was not economic to continue reprocessing AGR fuel once all overseas LWR fuel had been done" (David Bonser, BNFL Director of Alpha/LMU Interface to NGO Autumn Meeting, Daresbury, 2003).

Sellafield Ltd now however denies that this is the case, though the original scheduling of overseas LWR fuel being reprocessed annually in tandem with UK AGR fuel is clearly tabled in the 1995 draft report by NAC International (Worldwide Reprocessing Summary), which lists in minutest detail the data supplied by BNFL "as reprocessor" for each individual contract for THORP. Further, rather than being financially driven, the primary reason for reprocessing AGR fuel today is well documented as being the urgent requirement to keep it moving through the system so as to maintain sufficient storage pond capacity available at Sellafield to accept the weekly rail imports of spent fuel from the AGR power stations. Without this spare capacity, and suffering from dangerously limited storage capacity at their own sites, the AGR stations would be forced to invest into alternative storage options like dry storage, to reduce electricity generation levels or close down altogether if their escape route to Sellafield was compromised.