The most important task facing Ed Davey for the long term is not how to manage the Energy Bill, but deciding how to deal with the 112 tonnes of plutonium accumulated at Sellafield and Dounreay from past civil nuclear operations, still growing at 4-6 tonnes a year.
The cost of maintaining this hazardous material in maximum security conditions to the year 2050 is estimated at £67.5 billion. But storage in a geological disposal facility is not on the cards, with Cumbria County Council’s decision to reject the idea in January, and no other candidates on the horizon. The best hope is therefore to use the plutonium as fuel in the future programme of nuclear reactors for electricity generation.
The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) and the Government’s favoured solution is to build a plant to manufacture mixed uranium and plutonium oxide fuel (MOX), but we have already been down that route. We closed down a MOX plant in 2011 after spending £1.4 billion and producing a mere 13 tonnes of fuel.
The Americans are building a MOX plant, originally budgeted at $1 billion, but now estimated to come in at $7 billion. The running costs alone, with no amortisation of capital, will be over $200k for every kilogram of plutonium. The only customer they are likely to have for this hopelessly uneconomic output is the Tennessee Valley Authority, a publicly owned electricity generator.
In Europe, there are no takers at all for MOX fuel. EDF, likely to get orders in the coming nuclear programme, says it doesn’t want MOX, and neither does Horizon, scheduled to build a new station at Wylfa on the Isle of Anglesey.
The Canadian reactor vendor Candu says it would use its own variant of MOX fuel to use up our plutonium stocks. They need to convince the NDA their plan would be more likely to come in on budget than the failed projects in the UK and the US.
The final candidate is GE/Hitachi’s PRISM reactor, which uses plutonium in metallic form, avoiding the necessity for an oxide plant. It can be adapted to recycle spent elements from other reactors, turning nuclear waste from a liability into an asset. The private funding model GE/Hitachi is offering could shift the risk from the UK taxpayer to the contractor with the cost being recovered from sales of electricity,
When the NDA finally report to the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC), Ed Davey will need the Treasury to advise on the economic merits of the business plans of the three competitors, and the Office of Nuclear Regulation to assess not only the licenceability of the three competitors, but whether their plans make the plutonium safer all along the way.
This decision has enormous implications for the future of nuclear reactors in the UK’s energy mix as well as for the speed and safety of eliminating the plutonium stockpile. The bottom line must be that burning plutonium is not only safe and reliable, but produces electricity at a cost of less than £100 per MWh, in common with other low-carbon technologies post 2020. Good luck, Ed!
* Eric Lubbock, Lord Avebury, is a working peer, and Vice-Chair, Parliamentary Human Rights Group. He blogs here.