German’s may pull plug on reprocessing

Atomanlegget Sellafield

Publish date: February 21, 2003

Written by: Erik Martiniussen

German power companies threaten to cancel their contracts with Sellafield. Among the companies considering turning their back on Sellafield, is Germany’s largest nuclear company, Eon Energie AG.

This is reported by the professional journal for the nuclear industry, Nuclear Fuel. According to Nuclear Fuel, the German companies now consider it less expensive to buy out of the contracts compared to continuing co-operation with Sellafield.

Will store the fuel
The contracts now reconsidered are between 20 and 30 years old, and involve reprocessing at the Sellafield plant’s prestigious Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant, THORP. When THORP was completed in 1994, the cost of building the facility had reached more than £2.8bn. At that point the owner of the Sellafield plant, British Nuclear Fuels Ltd (BNFL), had arranged for so-called baseload contracts for reprocessing of about 7,000 tonnes of spent nuclear fuel elements. This amount was to be reprocessed within the first ten years of THORP operation, and no later than 2004.

Lately, German power companies have, as a consequence of the old contracts, clarified the transports of the fuel still waiting reprocessing at Sellafield’s THORP plant. Indications that BNFL again considers raising the standard price has, however, caused German contractors to consider other alternatives.

If that should be the case, this will not be the first time German companies cancel contracts with BNFL. In the 1990s the German power suppliers RWE-AG and HEW-AG bought themselves out of contracts for nuclear fuel from two German boiling water reactors. According to Nuclear Fuel, Germany’s largest nuclear company, Eon Energie AG, is one of the companies which is now considering to store its nuclear fuel rather than send it to England and France for reprocessing. Germany, which has agreed to phase out their nuclear power plants, has already started to build dry storage facilities for spent nuclear fuel close to their nuclear power plants. If the contracts with German companies are to crumble away, a share of Sellafield’s financial foundation is dissolving as well.

Repeated delays
Repeated delays in the reprocessing activities at THORP have represented a lasting annoyance to BNFL’s customers. Two years ago, the British paper The Independent reported that all of BNFL’s foreign customers threatened to cancel former contracts with BNFL. In addition to the German companies, companies in Japan, Switzerland, Holland and Italy warned BNFL of the possibility that they could cancel contracts adding up to a total of £6bn. In this case an agreement was reached, but now a new conflict is building up.

Technical problems have caused the reprocessing at THORP to be delayed. BNFL has therefore admitted that they will not be able to reprocess all the baseload contracts by the set time, and has through negotiations with their contractors managed to extend the time limit to April 2005. As BNFL’s eight-year operation was about to start, April 1st 2001, BNFL had still only reprocessed 3,182 tonnes of the 7,000-tonne goal. The last two years’ throughputs in THORP have been around 1,200 tonnes of spent nuclear fuel. It was supposed to be 900 annually to reach customer targets.