Eric Avebury writes…Managing our nuclear legacy: the £67.5 billion question for Ed Davey

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.

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  • Richard Harris 11th Mar '13 - 1:56pm

    Not a political question, but what is left when this MOX fuel is burnt?

  • Stephen Hesketh 11th Mar '13 - 8:20pm

    Another good article from the pen of the noble Lord.

    Some points raised in my mind:
    1) any future nuclear programme MUST be capable of using plutonium and other high activity waste as fuel rather than simply generating more of it.
    2) until we have a credible method of dealing with any radioactive waste that will inevitably be created by any current nuclear technology, reactor efficiency should be slanted towards the destruction of existing waste rather than electricity generation alone. This we owe to future generations.
    3) Eric’s observation of GE/Hitachi’s PRISM reactor being able to use plutonium in metallic form, thereby avoiding the necessity for an oxide plant is very interesting – as are his comments that it may be possible to adapt it to recycle spent elements from other reactors (and stockpiles?) and thereby turn nuclear waste from a liability into an asset.
    4) “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”- whilst I am totally opposed to subsidising the nuclear industry, it may well be an environmentally and economically sound strategy (based on the staggering projected storage costs) to actually subsidise the reduction in existing AND new fissile waste materials.
    5) “the bottom line must be that burning plutonium is not only safe and reliable, but that it produces electricity at … a reasonable price – in common with other low-carbon technologies post 2020.”
    6) Liberal Democrats in Government must ensure that estimated costs include all decommissioning and long-term waste storage costs not just those for the life time of the reactor. This should be enshrined in law.
    7) Funding must not be diverted from domestic rooftop and other small scale and local (wind, wave and tidal) generation methods. Just as with the food we eat, separating consumers from any notion of manufacturing methods and responsibilities potentially carries a very heavy price.

  • Liberal Eye 12th Mar '13 - 5:55pm

    I think that much of the plutonium and other high level waste actually derives from the early days of the military programme rather than the civil power programme but, be that as it may, there is a real opportunity here to make a difference on several fronts simultaneously.

    MOX is certainly NOT the way to go but to the three possibilities listed above should be added the Liquid Flouride Thorium Reactor (LFTR) which uses molten fluoride salt instead of pressurised water as the working medium. Apart from being intrinsically far safer than conventional PWR reactors these should be substantially cheaper to build plus they can burn existing waste and generate far less new waste (because they burn up most of the fuel instead of the 1% or so achieved by a conventional reactor).

    Kirk Sorenson has a good brief (10 mins) introduction to some of the advantages at TED.

    MIT spin-out company, Transatomic, claims they should be able to build a reactor at roughly half the cost of a conventional PWR which is specifically designed to run of waste. No MOX is needed as spent fuel pellets are simply dissolved in the molten salt. It’s early days for them as yet but if this is even roughly correct then we cannot afford to be left out of this race or we will have the most expensive power in the world. This video gives some good background to the concept (19 mins).

  • PRISM is a first-of-kind product with too much risk involved, thus should be avoided. A proven reactor needs to be used, so PWR or CANDU. PWR doesn’t burn plutonium as well as CANDU.

  • in fact, after irradiation there is more plutonium in a spent PWR fuel assembly than originally went in. In CANDU there is less plutonium than went in originally so CANDU is technically the better option to get rid of the plutonium.

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