Time to tackle the UK’s plutonium mountain
Professor Neil Hyatt, Research Chair in Radioactive Waste Management and Director of the NucleUS Immobilisation Science Laboratory, calls for UK plutonium policy to be re-examined to allow swift immobilisation of UK’s civil plutonium stockpile to maximise safety, security and affordability for UK taxpayers.
Current Government policy is to reuse the UK’s plutonium as so-called MOX (Mixed Oxide) fuel in a fleet of new light water reactors. However, an analysis of the troubled US MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility, published in the journal Energy Policy and conducted by Professor Neil Hyatt, has identified issues that may also be problematic for a potential new UK MOX fuel production plant.
Plutonium was once envisaged as the fuel for a fleet of fast breeder reactors, but the reactor development programme was shelved in 1994. Since then, plutonium, recovered by reprocessing of nuclear fuel, has continued to stockpile at the Sellafield site.
At the end of reprocessing operations in 2020, the UK civil plutonium stocks will exceed 140 tonnes - the largest stockpile of plutonium under civil safeguards in the world. Several influential reports have highlighted security concerns associated with indefinite storage of this material.
The USA has all but abandoned completion of its MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility, a cornerstone of the Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement between the USA and Russia, signed in 2010, to eliminate 34 tons of weapons grade plutonium. This lead to Russia suspending implementation of the agreement in October 2016.
The study concludes Government policy should be changed to commit to immobilising plutonium which is suitable for reuse as MOX fuel, in the event that a MOX fuel fabrication plant is no longer considered a viable proposition.
Professor Hyatt argues that the UK needs to learn the lessons of the US plutonium disposition programme, which was wedded, exclusively, to plutonium reuse in MOX fuel fabrication.
Professor Neil Hyatt
NucleUS Immobilisation Science Laboratory