U.K. plutonium re-use policy slammed in House of Commons report

By Dr David Lowry with Mycle Schneider

The most politically important and influential committee of the British Parliament has bluntly told the UK Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) that it "must learn from past mistakes and ensure that there is a comprehensive, robust business case before any decision is taken on dealing with the plutonium stockpile."

In a highly critical report issued on 11 February 2014 on the management of Sellafield, Progress at Sellafield, 43rd report of session 2013-14, the House of Commons Committee on Public Accounts (PAC) states that the NDA "has not set out clearly its strategy for dealing with the plutonium stored at Sellafield." It recalls that the option preferred by the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) is to process the plutonium to form a mixed oxide fuel for civilian use which would reduce the security concerns associated with its storage, but points out that a previous plant (Sellafield MOX plant, SMP) to manufacture plutonium into fuel for civilian purposes, which cost some £1 bn, proved to be "problematic". In fact, critics rather say SMP was an complete technical and economic failure--with a load factor of 1.3 percent over its operational time between 2002 and 2011--and is now closed.

The PAC also reveal that DECC has admitted that "the value of the [MOX] fuel produced in a new project would be lower than the cost of building, maintaining and operating a new plant." (See the minutes of evidence of a stunning November 2013 hearing of NDA and DECC). And it also points out anyway "there are currently no nuclear power stations in the UK which could use the fuel."

Meanwhile, Liz Keenaghan-Clarke, DECC's newly appointed deputy director for nuclear development and radioactive waste & decommissioning policy, told a meeting of DECC's NGO forum for non-profit stakeholders on 10 February 2014, that DECC has agreed within the coalition Government to move ahead with the next stage of plutonium policy. But she revealed an important policy change: at the insistence of ministers it will include further assessment of immobilization options for the 111 tons of plutonium currently stockpiled at Sellafield, alongside re-use options set out in the NDA report (see United Kingdom remains undecided on plutonium reuse options, 20 January 2014)

Sellafield is the largest and most hazardous of the nuclear sites owned by the NDA in the UK. Sellafield Limited is the licensed operator of the site and manages the site under a contract with the NDA, which reimburses its costs of around £1.6 billion a year, the PAC sets out. In August 2008, the NDA appointed Nuclear Management Partners (NMP), a consortium of private sector companies comprising AMEC (UK) AREVA (France) and URS Washington (US), as the 'parent body organization' (PBO) of Sellafield Limited, with the aim of improving performance using its expertise. For the past five years, NMP has received fees earned by Sellafield Limited for improved performance in the form of dividends, receiving some £50 million in 2011-12, totaling £230 million over the five years of the initial contract. A report from consultants KMPG, commissioned by the NDA in 2013, was very critical of key features of NMP's performance over the initial contract term, the PAC concludes. Despite these criticisms, the NDA announced in October 2013 that it had decided to extend its contract with NMP for a further five years.