The UK should turn its stockpiles of spent nuclear fuel into a £10 billion ($16 billion) economic opportunity, according to a report from the Smith School of Enterprise and Environment.
David King, director of the institute and former chief scientific adviser to the government, said: “Currently the UK has a window of opportunity to deal with its nuclear material and spent fuel … and to maximise the value of its existing assets.”
The UK has likely the largest stockpile of spent nuclear fuel of any country, a legacy of its 20th century nuclear program. This includes around 100 tonnes of separated plutonium and 6,000 tonnes of spent fuel from the country’s advanced gas-cooled reactors, as well as nuclear fuel to be generated by a proposed new fleet of power stations from 2018.
Rather than viewing this legacy as a liability, King said, “What we have accomplished is a large amount of useable uranium and a large amount of plutonium.”
He argued that the UK’s nuclear plan should not be held back by the suspected meltdown of the Fukushima plant in Japan. “Do we see that, as a result of the awful disaster in Japan, that we take a backwards step on dealing with the massive problems of global warming? I hope not,” King said at the report launch in London.
The UK government has reiterated its commitment to a new generation of nuclear power plants, despite the still-unfolding crisis in Japan. However, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said during a press conference in Mexico on 29 March that additional safety standards likely to be required in the wake of the disaster may mean nuclear is too expensive to build without government subsidy, which the coalition has said it will not provide. The utilities Centrica and EDF have proposed a £20 billion investment in nuclear in the UK.
The report was welcomed by the Nuclear Industry Association in the UK, but Greenpeace chief scientist Doug Parr said: “By reprocessing nuclear waste and turning it into fuel, you create even more nuclear waste than you would otherwise have to deal with anyway. Reprocessing would also lead to increased multi-billion pound taxpayer handouts to the nuclear industry, and that’s before you consider what it would mean for our ability to constrain nuclear weapons proliferation around the world.”
One scenario outlined in the report involves processing the stockpiles into less radioactive waste – although the technology to do this for the plutonium stockpile is so far unproven – for eventual long-term storage in a geological facility planned to open in 2075.
The other three scenarios all presume the UK would build or renovate facilities at Thorp, the existing nuclear reprocessing and decommissioning site in Sellafield, to reprocess the stockpiles into mixed oxide (MOX) fuel for a proposed new fleet of nuclear power stations.
The final scenario would also see the Thorp plant refurbished, with an extended operating life, to reprocess not only the UK’s spent fuel but, on a commercial basis, stockpiles from other countries.
However, the economic value to the UK of these scenarios varies widely. Report author Gregg Butler told Environmental Finance that the £10 billion figure does include government spending likely to be necessary in carrying out the plans.
The UK’s history with commercial nuclear fuel reprocessing is checkered. In 2001, the country opened a MOX reprocessing plant in Sellafield. Designed to produce 120 tonnes of MOX fuel a year, the £1.2 billion plant produced five tonnes in five years of operation and became mired in controversy. The first shipment of MOX from Sellafield to Japan was returned in a scandal related to nuclear data.
Parr from Greenpeace said: “Previous governments failed experiments at Sellafield mean that producing this sort of highly radioactive fuel has already cost the British taxpayer billions.”