Sellafield’s Thorp set to reopen in 2008 after 3 years of repairs and clean-up

Sellafield mai 2007
(Foto: Nils Bøhmer/Bellona)

Publish date: October 30, 2007

Written by: Charles Digges

NEW YORK - The Thorp nuclear fuel reprocessing plant in Sellafield is set to restart full commercial operations in the new year, almost three years after it was closed following a radioactive leak, promting a call from Bellona to the United Kingdom not to reopen the plant.

Bellona is calling on the Norwegian government to exert all possible pressure on the to UK stop Thorp – a major source of radioactive contamination in the Irish Sea, and stretching as far north as Norway – from going back online.

“The security and safety at this installation is just not good enough, which we have proven time and again,” said Bellona nuclear physicist Nil Boehmer.

The Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant, or Thorp, at the Sellafield nuclear complex in west Cumbria, is a large source of income for the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA), the government body that owns the site. The plant recycles spent fuel from reactors by dissolving it in nitric acid and removing the waste, leaving uranium and plutonium that can be made into fresh fuel.

In April 2005 it was discovered that 83 cubic metres of the radioactive acid been leaking for nine months undetected by staff from a holding tank into the surrounding concrete containment shell. British Nuclear Group, which was in charge of running Sellafield, said the incident posed no danger to the public but admitted the leak had gone undetected.

The leak was rated a 4 on the International Atomic Energy Agency’s International Nuclear Event Scale, classifying it as a “serious incident” and one step short of a full-scale accident.

Thorp has been closed since the leak, causing major back-ups with its reprocessing customers – mainly Japan and Germany. In recent months it had been granted permission to reprocessing orders that were already in the works when the leak was finally discovered.

The new permission opens it fully for business in 2008.

Norway must speak out
“(Norwegian) Environmental Minister (Erik) Solheim should use this opportunity to pressure is British colleagues to get the installation closed for good,” said Boehmer, who is concerned about more nuclear emissions from the facility. It was only in the past few years that decades’ worth of technesium emissions from the Sellafeild complex began to abate, with technical assistance from Bellona.

Boehmer said the only way to entirely avoid any new seaborne radioactive emissions is to shut down the Sellafield site altogether.

BNG and its parent British Nuclear Fuels are in the process of being broken up and privatised, and the company running Thorp was recently rebranded Sellafield Ltd. A five-year contract to manage the complex will be awarded to a private-sector bidder next year.

Thorp recently completed the reprocessing of 30 tonnes of fuel that was in the system when it was shut down, and the NDA said on Monday it had been “a success.” The Health and Safety Executive gave approval for Thorp to restart earlier this year, but problems with equipment that evaporates moisture at the end of the reprocessing cycle led to delays.

Sellafield Ltd said it was hopeful that the problems with the evaporators would be solved soon, and that Thorp could resume commercial operations early next year. “We are hoping to start the next batch of fuel in the new year,” it said in a statement.

Money lost for UK nuke industry and decommissioners
The NDA said Thorp’s shutdown meant it had not received £112m of income in the 2006-07 financial year. The agency’s income was £1.2bn but it faces a bill of more than £70bn for the clean-up of the UK’s nuclear waste, most of which is at Sellafield.

The NDA views income from commercial operations such as Thorp as important in limiting the burden on UK taxpayers, and as a way to help finance the decommissioning of aged nuclear sites in Britain, including Sellafield.

According to Boehmer, Sellafield’s operators are working on plans to decommission the facility, a process that will take over 100 years to fully cool the radioactive waste that will result. The Thorp facility, however, is planned to remain in service as a money spinner for the British nuclear industry.