Sellafield's THORP reprocessing plant shut down

by Martin Forwood

The UK government announced on 14 November 2018 that the THORP reprocessing plant at Sellafield has started its planned shutdown.

A Sellafield Stakeholder committee was told that by 11 November 2018, THORP would have chopped up (sheared) its last batch of spent fuel, bringing to an end almost a quarter century of operation.

Based on the officially published 'annual throughput' figures (tons reprocessed per year) collated by the environmental group Cumbrians Opposed to a Radioactive Environment (CORE) since the plant opened in 1994, THORP has failed to meet its operational targets and schedules by a large margin.

Target: 'THORP will reprocess 7,000 tons of fuel in the first 10 years of operation at a rate of 1,000 tons per year'

Just 5,045 tons were reprocessed in the first 10 years of operation--the 7,000 tons only being completed on 4 December 4 2012--over nine years late. Not once during the Baseload period (1994-2003) was the nominal throughput rate of 1,000 tons per year achieved.

Target: 'THORP will reprocess 800 tons per year during the Post-Baseload period (2004 onwards)'

Whilst the Baseload performance (above) strongly suggested that achieving this rate was highly improbable if not impossible, any chance was finally dashed by THORP's 2005 accident whose irreparable damage slashed the plant's future throughput rate by some 50 percent. Since its restart in 2007 THORP has averaged 306 t/yr.

Target: 'Additional business for THORP is expected to be secured from overseas customers'.

No such business was ever secured. Conversely, over 850 tons of business was lost when, under a revised Atomic Law, German utilities chose--for economic and environmental reasons--to store their fuel in Germany rather than send it to THORP for reprocessing. On its opening in 1994, THORP had secured 10,229 tons of reprocessing business from the UK, Japan and six European countries. On its closure in 2018, the plant will have reprocessed a total of just 9,300 tons 'with all contracts completed.'

Target: 'THORP: a world leading facility for the recycling of used nuclear fuel'

THORP was not designed to recycle spent fuel but to recover materials for subsequent re-use. Of these, the most problematic is plutonium--with a majority of the estimated 56 tons recovered by THORP now languishing unused in the Sellafield stockpile, including plutonium 'flag-swapped' to the UK ownership by overseas customers who have also no use for it.

That THORP was indeed to lose some overseas contracts will have come as no surprise to BNFL whose Director Alan Johnson warned in 1989 (5 years before the plant opened) that the global change in attitude to reprocessing posed a very real threat to THORP and that 'one or two of our important customers would love to cancel their contracts' [Channel 4 1989 TV Documentary 'Inside Sellafield'].

The loss of major overseas business (at least 850 tons worth) will have impacted on THORP's financial viability. BNFL's claim of a £500 million profit being earned over the first 10-year Baseload period was based on a forecast income of £6 billion and (with decommissioning costs accounted for) operational costs of £5.5 billion. The latter have inevitably escalated as a result of the numerous accidents, equipment failures, unplanned events and unscheduled outages suffered by THORP during those first 10 years. Under certain contracts, many such costs could not be foisted upon customers. In addition, the plant's decommissioning cost--put by BNFL in 1990 at an 'undiscounted' £700 million--has ballooned today to an 'undiscounted' £3.7 billion [NDA FoI response to CORE 29.10.18], thus raising further major doubts about THORP's profitability.

The full impact of these failures on THORP's profitability will however only be determined by the publication of a final 'set of accounts' for the plant. To date, no such figures have been published since the plant opened in 1994. The final account is going to be a long time in coming for, in its FoI response to CORE, the NDA confirms that it 'does not intend to make the financial information available at this time and have no plans for future publication. Ongoing commercial contracts make this information commercially sensitive'.