UK decision to take over foreign plutonium raises safeguards questions

By David Lowry, with Mycle Schneider

The UK Government has announced that it has struck an agreement with German and Swedish governments to take title to plutonium arising from the reprocessing at Sellafield and management at Dounreay respectively of spent nuclear fuel from the two nations.

In a written statement to the UK Parliament on 3 July 2014 by then energy minister Michael Fallon--who has since been promoted to become Defense Secretary--it was revealed that the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) has agreed to the UK Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) taking ownership of about 800 kg of material previously owned by a Swedish utility, and about 140 kg of material previously owned by a German research organization. It was reported earlier this year that Sweden was seeking to transfer to the United Kingdom of 834 kg of plutonium.

As of 31 December 2013, the UK held around 123 tons of separated civil plutonium on its territory, of which 23.4 tons is foreign owned, according to the latest published government data.

In April 2013 DECC announced taking over 750 kg of plutonium belonging to German utilities, 1,850 kg previously loaned from France, and 350 kg from Dutch firm GKN. At the same time, 650 kg of plutonium stored at Sellafield was transferred from German to Japanese ownership. A similar deal with Germany in 2012 saw the UK take ownership of four tons of plutonium.

Mr Fallon said in his statement:

"These transactions, which have been agreed by the Euratom Supply Agency, will not result in any new plutonium being brought into the UK and will not therefore increase the overall amount of plutonium in the UK. We have agreed to these transactions as they offer a cost effective and beneficial arrangement, which: removes the need to transport separated plutonium, allows the UK to gain national control over more of the civil plutonium in the UK and enables an outstanding contract with a Swedish utility to be concluded.
In line with the DECC policy statement, the NDA continues to engage with other third parties regarding taking ownership of further overseas plutonium in the UK arising from overseas reprocessing contracts. As well as UK government approval, these transactions will require consent from the relevant overseas Governments and regulatory bodies, and thereafter EURATOM Supply Agency agreement, before any contracts are enacted."


In December 2011, DECC published its response to the consultation on Plutonium Management, which indicated that the UK Government's preferred option was to reuse the plutonium as MOX fuel, but that it would be open to consider alternative options if they offered better value to the UK taxpayer.

In addition, the UK Government said that overseas owners of plutonium stored in the UK could have that plutonium managed in line with UK plutonium, subject to commercial terms that are acceptable to the UK Government. Subject to compliance with inter-governmental agreements and acceptable commercial arrangements, the UK is prepared to take ownership of overseas plutonium stored in the UK as a result of which it would be treated in the same way as UK-owned plutonium. The Government stated that it "considers that there are advantages to having national control over more of the civil plutonium in the UK, as this gives us greater influence over how we ultimately manage it."

However, one way the UK government could manage the plutonium, is to remove at least some of it from safeguards, and provide it for any form of unsafeguarded (military) uses it wishes.

In a written Parliamentary answer on 10 July 2014, (Official Report : Column 412W) Minister Fallon assured Labour MP Paul Flynn: "There is no intention to withdraw from safeguards the plutonium recently allocated to the UK by Germany and Sweden." He explained that all civil nuclear material in the UK is subject to Euratom safeguards and the terms of the 1977 UK/Euratom/IAEA Voluntary Safeguards Agreement, including its Article 14. What he did not say was Article 14 permits the UK Government to withdraw unlimited quantities of nuclear materials from safeguards at any time.

Fallon did however add: "As part of the 1998 Strategic Defence Review, the Government announced that as a matter of policy future withdrawals of nuclear material from safeguards would be severely limited, and that the quantities of material involved would be orders of magnitude less than the amounts used to make nuclear weapons. "According to information provided by the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR), over the past decade 2004 to 2013, the UK withdrew small quantities of plutonium from safeguards on 53 occasions. According to the declarations, the material involved did not exceed gram quantities on each occasion and they were officially withdrawn from safeguards for use in instrument calibration, radiation detectors, analytical tracers or radiological shielding.

At this point in time, the question is not whether the UK intends to use foreign origin plutonium for military purposes, but rather that according to the existing tripartite agreement, the UK is free to withdraw any amount of material from safeguards any time. Once the UK has taken title to foreign plutonium, there will be no distinction between UK origin and foreign origin plutonium.

The UK has a history of withdrawing nuclear materials--mainly plutonium, enriched uranium and depleted uranium--from safeguards hundreds of times since 1978, when the tripartite voluntary safeguards agreement came into force. In the first announcement to Parliament in 1998, twenty years after the withdrawal option became activated, it was revealed that 591 withdrawals had been carried out over that period (Official Report, 29 July 1998 : Column: 358).

Information on nuclear material withdrawn from safeguards is available on the Office for Nuclear Regulation website.