Controversial Thorp plant at Sellafield to be shut down
SELLAFIELD’S CONTROVERSIAL Thorp nuclear reprocessing plant is to close.
The facility will be shut down in six years’ time, Britain’s Nuclear Decommissioning Authority has said.
The decision will mean that spent nuclear rods produced by the British nuclear industry after 2018 will have to be buried untreated in a temporary nuclear storage dump for up to a century.
“Our strategy to close Thorp following completion of the reprocessing contracts has potentially wider policy implications for spent fuel management in the UK,” the authority acknowledged.
Following the closure of Thorp (thermal oxide reprocessing plant), rods from the UK’s seven advanced gas-cooled reactors will be placed “in an interim store pending packaging for disposal” in a permanent waste site.
However, the authority said it was “still many years from making final decisions on the design” of the dump and even where it would be located.
The thermal oxide reprocessing plant, one of several independently operating units at Sellafield, opened in 1994 and currently deals with spent nuclear rods from UK gas-cooled reactors and foreign plants.
The closure decision, though not a surprise, follows a strategic review by the authority, which outlined three options for the future in a preliminary report last December.
Reprocessing by the Thorp plant was due to finish in 2010 but a serious leak seven years ago, when nuclear fuel dissolved in nitric acid leaked into a chamber, delayed work.
The incident did not lead to a leak of radiation into the atmosphere but it was a financial disaster for the operators, who have spent, according to some reports, £1 million (€1.2 million) a day ever since to clean it up.
Construction on the UK’s national nuclear waste dump, to be built deep underground, is expected to start in 2075, though a location has not yet been chosen.
Efforts by the US to build one at Yucca Mountain in Nevada began decades ago but politicians there remain unsure whether it will ever be used. The decision to close Thorp means that there is “no safety, operational or strategic requirement to replace” tanks that currently take the by-products from reprocessing, the nuclear authority said.
The decision means that all nuclear reprocessing at Sellafield, which employs 10,000 workers, will have ended by 2018, since reprocessing of Magnox rods is to end in 2017.
The job losses caused by the decision are smaller than had been previously mooted because the nuclear authority has deployed increasing numbers of staff to deal with other risks on the site. In a statement yesterday, the authority said the strategic review “has concluded that completing the Thorp contracts remains the most viable and cost-effective option”.
However, there was a signal from the nuclear body that Thorp could close earlier if it ran into more problems when it said that it was continuing “to examine options to reprocess less than the full contracted amount of spent fuel in Thorp in case it is needed”.
The reprocessing of uranium and plutonium by Thorp, which has received shipments from as far away as Japan, has meant that the rods can be reused.