Thorp reprocessing plant’s operational period may be extended by a decade, UK officials say

The Thorp reprocessing facility at Sellafield.

Publish date: August 22, 2008

Written by: Tone Foss Aspevoll

Sellafield’s embattled Thorp reprocessing facility will probably not shut down in 2011, as earlier planned, and the controversial, environmentally hazardous facility could continue operations for another five to 10 years beyond its project closure, officials from British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL) told Bellona nuclear physicist Nils Bøhmer, who visited the site Friday.

Representatives of BNFL confirmed to Bøhmer – who is also Bellona’s daily manager – that the Thorp plant could remain in operation until 2020.

“It is very unfortunate that we find this threat hanging over us for the next five to 10 years,” said Bøhmer.

BNFL’s announcement that Thorp’s operations could be extended was the second blow dealt to opponents of reprocessing in the UK this year, after Britain’s Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) decided that Sellafield’s Magnox fuel reprocessing facility would also operate beyond its projected closure.

bodytextimage_Nils-Boehmer-bredde-lite.jpg Photo: (foto: tone foss aspevoll/bellona)

The most contaminated facility
Thorp– which stands for the Thermal Oxides Reprocessing Plant – accepts nuclear waste from all over the world, and is one of the few facilities still in use at the ageing Sellafield nuclear site.

The Thorp facility reprocesses spent nuclear fuel with the goal of separating out uranium and plutonium for further use in reconstituted nuclear fuel, but the reprocessing process itself leads to even more radioactive pollution. By many estimates, the amount of waste produced by reprocessing far exceeds the amount of usable fuel products that come of the process.

The Thorp reprocessing facility was closed in April of 2005 when it was discovered that some 20 tonnes – or 83,000 litres – of radioactive liquor containing plutonium, uranium and nitric acid had been leaking into the facility’s clarification cell, a concrete containment shell, unchecked for nine months.

The plant was reopened against Bellona protests in March of this year. Bellona’s Bøhmer contended that Thorp was still lacking in several necessary government oversight permissions to go back into operation.

Second reprocessing extension at Sellafield this year
March also saw the announcement by BNFL that Sellafield would continue to reprocess Magnox fuel and operate Sellafield’s Magnox reactors. The shutdown of the Magnox fuel reprocessing facility was pushed back from 2012 to 2016, a state of affairs that poses special dangers in terms of the fuel assemblies themselves, and toxic leaks.

Unlike traditional uranium fuel, which relies on ceramic uranium oxide, Magnox fuel relies on uranium metal, which is highly susceptible to corrosion in the wet storage units in which it is housed.

For years, Magnox reprocessing was accompanied by scheduled lethal discharges of Techeium-99 (Tc-99) into the Irish Sea. This problem was largely solved by adding Tetraphenylphosphonium bromide (TPP) to liquid waste emissions from Sellafield’s Magnox fuel reprocessing plant, slashing Tc-99 discharges into the Irish Sea by 95 to 98 percent.

But getting the British government to even consider using this technology was an uphill battle led by Bellona for 10 years.

Norway must ratchet up pressure
Bellona is currently appealing to Norwegian authorities to bring their weight to bear in how Britain handles nuclear waste.

“Norwegian authorities must increase pressure on British authorities to find an alternative approach to how nuclear waste should be handled,” said Bøhmer, adding that one possibility would be to bury waste in geologic repositories – a possibility the British government is currently investigating to handle waste that will come of the nuclear power boost sought by the government of Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

Other earlier incidents at Sellafield
In 1957, Sellafield’s Windscale reactor caught fire, causing what was at the time the most serious accident to have occurred at Sellafield. The Windscale Reactor produced plutonium for use in nuclear weapons. Local radioactive fallout was serious, constituting what can be considered the Chernobyl of the time.

After that, the Sellafield site has had a series of lesser leaks and accidents. The 2005 leak at the Thorp facility lead to the reprocessing plant’s closure.

The Sellafield site was built in 1956 for the production of nuclear weapons, but later came to be used in Britain’s civilian nuclear energy sector.

But Sellafield’s days are numbered, and it is estimated to be the most expensive decommissioning project facing the NDA, which is charged with shutting down and dismantling 11 of Britain’s oldest and most hazardous nuclear sites.

The reactors at Sellafield that produced electricity have been shut down, and the Thorp facility for reprocessing nuclear fuel is one of a handful of facilities still in operation at the site.