£480m nuclear plant does not deliver

I forrige uke var det et alvorlig uhell ved atomkraftverket Calder Hall ved Sellafield.
Foto: BNFL

Publish date: May 20, 2004

Written by: Erik Martiniussen

More than two years after it was commissioned, the Sellafield MOX Plant—a hoped-for jewel in the crown of Britain’s financially battered British Nuclear Fuels Plc—has yet to produce a single assembly of mixed plutonium and uranium oxide, or MOX, fuel.

British Nuclear Fuel Plc, or BNFL blamed the delays on the complexity of commencing operations at such a facility, but the perpetual delays are losing BNFL’s customers and may jeopardizing the prestigious new plant’s reputation on the international market. Responsible parties at BNFL could not be reached to comment on when the SMP may begin production.

The Sellafield MOX Plant, or SMP, was given the green light to start producing MOX-fuel in December 2001 by none other than British Prime Minister Tony Blair who personally pushed the project through despite vociferous opposition from Michael Meacher, Blair’s former Environmental Minister.

Since then, BNFL, the plant’s operator, has had serious trouble with the production, and the facility has yet to produce a single MOX fuel assembly.

Important plant
MOX-fuel is a nuclear fuel made from the oxides of uranium and reprocessed plutonium. On paper, the £482 million plant is engineered to produce 300 tonnes of MOX fuel per year.

At the moment, some 80 tonnes of reprocessed plutonium is stored at Sellafield. Because the SMP intends to utilise both reprocessed plutonium and uranium for MOX production, the plant has serious environmental and security implications for the future operation of the entire Sellafield complex.

The delays in MOX production at Sellafield are having a measurable impact on the company’s reputation and are putting future contracts under a cloud. At the moment, BNFL has secured only about half the number of contracts it needs to run the SMP for its first 10 years. Its biggest contract is with the German Power Company E.ON AG.

According to Greenpeace, the E.ON AG contract entails converting 5.8 tonnes of German plutonium into MOX. BNFL believes that the contract with E.ON AG will engage some 15 percent of the SMP’s capacity for the job. There are 13.6 tonnes of plutonium stored by various German companies at Sellafield. But the true cash-cow that BNFL has yet to attain are lucrative contracts with Japan, which are essential if the SMP is to ever generate a profit.

In a statement, BNFL admitted that progress at the SMP had been "disappointing" but said that delays were to be expected when commissioning a complex plant. The statement read that customers were being kept "informed.”

First contract a let-down
The MOX-plant has already let down its first customer, Nordostschweizerische Kraftwerke (NOK) of Switzerland by failing to deliver a MOX fuel order for that country’s Beznau nuclear power plant in time for Beznau’s annual refuelling. Delays in the plutonium commissioning at the SMP have dashed all hopes that the Swiss order will even be manufactured, let alone delivered.

An independent report commissioned by the British government showed that the SMP will, at best, earn only £216 of the £460 million it cost to build the plant. These figures, however, may fluctuate for the better if possible contracts with the Japanese materialise. According to British daily Independent, British Energy Minister Stephen Timms is visiting Japan this week in an attempt to rescue the plant.

But Timms will have a tough sell—Japanese utilities are still smarting from a 1999 scandal in which BNFL-manufactured MOX fuel arrived in Japan with falsified quality assurance data. As such, Tokyo still appears to lack confidence in BNFL’s ability to produce MOX fuel. Piling more injury on BNFL’s attempts to secure Japanese MOX contracts are reports that Japan’s Kansai Electric has announced its intentions to sign MOX fuel contracts with France’s nuclear giant—and BNFL’s stiffest competition—Cogema.

Yet another setback between BNFL and its Japanese customers occurred during Spring of 2001 when citizens living near Japan’s largest nuclear power plant voted against the use of MOX fuel in a referendum.

Martin Forwood, of the environmental group Cumbrians Opposed to a Radioactive Environment (CORE), issued a statement saying: “With its reputation already in tatters, the kindest thing would be to put the SMP plant out of its misery and close it down right away.”

Dirty bombs
A number of experts have expressed concerned that new MOX fuel can easily be utilised by terrorists to construct so-called “dirty bombs,” and have consequently recommended against granting the MOX-plant its licence to operate.

The Irish government has also vigorously protested against the SMP and has brought two suits against Great Britain in connection with the opening of the new plant. The first case concerned Great Britain’s responsibility under the terms of the OSPAR convention to inform neighbouring countries about its intentions to construct and operate such a potentially hazardous plant.

In the suit, Ireland claimed that the British government had withheld information that was crucial for an analysis about the necessity of opening such a plant. Ireland furthermore charged that the plant was in violation of certain provisions in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), pointing out that the increased number of MOX fuel transports by ship that would accompany the opening and operation of the plant constitute an unacceptable risk to the environment.

Both cases have been heard in the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague. While the court dismissed the first case in early July 2003, the second case is still under consideration. So far, the arbitration tribunal has criticised Great Britain for its lack of co-operation with Ireland concerning nuclear safety, and has ordered the two countries to work together more closely on nuclear safety.