Britain considering new nuclear power plants at Sellafield

Atomanlegget Sellafield kommer opp på EUs dagsorden.
Photo: BNFL

Publish date: January 26, 2009

Written by: Ola Innset

The British Nuclear Decommissioning Agency (NDA) has designated that Sellafield may be one of the sites where some of the new nuclear power reactors in Great Britain’s nuclear build out may by constructed, NDA said in a release.

Bellona, which is opposed to the nuclear build out, that has been a priority of Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s labour government, is concerned about will happen with the new nuclear waste and spent nuclear fuel produced by new plants.

“The British authorities have not exactly shown solid results when it comes to dealing with spent nuclear fuels earlier, said Nils Bøhmer, Bellona’s nuclear physicist.

He is especially concerned about what will happen with radioactive waste that could be produced at the aged and worn Sellafield facility in Cumbria.

Nuclear Brown
The NDA owns 11 of Britain’s oldest nuclear sites, including Sellafield. Ironically, the NDA’s mandate for these sites is to manage their decommissioning over the next several years. Now Sellafield is again on the map as a host site for a new nuclear power plant.

Prime Minister Brown sees nuclear energy as an important tool to cut British greenhouse gas emissions. Environmental NGO’s however, say that Brown’s emphasis on nuclear power is channeling money that could be spent on Britain’s vast renewable energy potential into nuclear power.

Brown has flown the flag of combating climate change over his plans to beef up Britain’s nuclear power sector. But as Bellona and other organisations have argued, the sheer length of time that it take to build nuclear plants  – usually more than a decade with regulatory scuffles – would assure the plants, with their boasted zero carbon emissions, arrive on the scene far too late to be of any use against global climate change, especially when climate friendly energy technologies are readily available now.

What would result is a calamitous intersection of an ongoing and more acute climate crisis and a pile up of nuclear waste.

Sellafield’s new owners

On November 24th, a consortium consisting of amongst others the French company Areva and the American company URS Washington Group bought Sellafield from the former owners BNFL in a long anticipated move, and are now the operators of the site.

Last month, the new owners were in Norway to meet Bellona staff, local resistance groups from the Lofoten archipelago on Norway’s west coast, the Norwegian environment minister and selected Norwegian Members of Parliament.

Norway’s memory of poisonous waste from the Sellafield plant washing up on its own shores is all too fresh.

It was only in 2004 that British authorities adopted long existing technology to cleanse regular discharges of radioactive Technetium-99 (Tc-99) – a by-product of waste reprocessing at Sellafield’s Magnox reactor units – that it was dumping into the Irish Sea. The Tc-99 was being detected in Ireland, and as far north as the Barents Sea.

By using the he chemical precipitant tetraphenylphosphonium bromide, or TPP, which had long been presented by Bellona to the British government as a way of alleviating the radioactive emissions, Sellafield almost immediately slashed its Tc-99 discharges my more than 95 percent.

But Sellafield has apparently been wooed by nuclear giants.

 “(The French state-owned )Areva has made it their business to construct new NPPs, so it is not a huge surprise that Sellafield is now being launched as a possible site for new power plants,” Bøhmer said

“They have probably bought their way into Sellafield to gain access to land where new NPPs can be built.”

He underscored that nuclear waste management was the biggest problem facing the British nuclear build out.

“The risk for accidents affecting Norway of course grows with every nuclear facility built in our surroundings, but the main challenge for Norway is how the waste from a possible new facility will be taken care of,” Bøhmer said.

“The Norwegian government has to put pressure on their British colleagues on this matter.”

Bøhmer said the new owners have signaled that they do not intend to reprocess the waste at the THORP-facility. But Bøhmer fear these are plans that may easily be changed.

Bellona has fought against the reprocessing of nuclear waste from the THORP-facility at Sellafield for many years. Reprocessing makes both the volume of and the radiation from the waste much higher. THORP has had many mishaps and near accidents.

The most recent occurred in April 2005, when it was discovered that some 20 tonnes of plutonium and uranium liquid mixed with nitric acid had been leaking from storage tanks into the facility’s clarification cell. There was no escape of radioactivity into the environment, but the incident ranked a 3 on the International Nuclear Event Scale (INES) scale, classifying it as a “serious incident” – one step short of a full-blown accident.

At present, THORP is slated to be shut down by 2015, but Bøhmer fears that new NPPs at Sellafield may encourage the owners to prolong the use of THORP:

 “If new NPP’s are built, more waste will be created and this might pave the road for more usage of the THORP facility, Bøhmer said.

 “There is no waste depository in the UK. We think that the British should take care of their historic waste in a timely fashion before they start making even more of it.”

Recent statements from the British government lend credence to Bøhmer’s concerns about the continue use of THORP. Prior to Sellafield’s sale to the Areva-URS group, BNFL had stated they wanted the reprocessing plant to run for another 10 years beyond its originally scheduled shut down date.

THORP is also one of the primary money forces on which the NDA depends to finance its decommissioning operations.