Nuclear reprocessing

Last edited 10 November 2001 at 8:00am
Sellafield nuclear reprocessing plant

Every nuclear power station creates plutonium while in operation. The plutonium is contained in the spent fuel elements. A number of countries have shipped their spent fuel to La Hague, (France) or Sellafield (UK) for reprocessing, although Sellafield no longer has any major overseas contracts.

Reprocessing involves the chemical separation of plutonium from nuclear fuel that has been used in a nuclear reactor. This is a complicated and hazardous chemical process that creates a tremendous amount of radioactive waste, much greater in volume than that contained in the original nuclear fuel elements. There are large reprocessing facilities operating in France, UK and Russia, and Japan is currently building a major reprocessing facility - planned to start operating soon.

Germany, Switzerland, Japan, Sweden and Spain have all shipped nuclear waste (spent fuel) to Sellafield for reprocessing. La Hague in France receives spent fuel from many of the same countries. Russia occasionally receives eastern European spent fuel for reprocessing. Reprocessing is a very uneconomic technology. However, countries send nuclear spent fuel for reprocessing to delay having to deal with the nuclear waste themselves - in effect they are dumping their nuclear waste problem onto France, UK and Russia. Most of the nuclear wastes arising from reprocessing will stay in France, UK and Russia forever.

Reprocessing facilities also release huge quantities of radioactive liquid effluents into the sea and gaseous discharges into the air. The Sellafield and la Hague facilities are the biggest source of radioactive pollution in the European environment. The radioactive contamination in the sea can be traced as far north as the Arctic. There is an increase in the rate of childhood leukaemia and other radiation linked diseases in the vicinity of both Sellafield and la Hague.

The separation of weapons useable plutonium increases the threat of nuclear weapons proliferation. Technically, it is not very complicated to build a crude nuclear bomb with plutonium from reprocessing. Around 5 kilograms of plutonium is enough to make a nuclear bomb. Some of the reprocessed plutonium is used to make so-called MOX (Mixed Oxide) fuel which is more dangerous to handle and use than natural uranium fuel. Nevertheless, the stockpile of weapons-usable plutonium from civilian reprocessing keeps growing dramatically since a very small amount of plutonium is used for fuel fabrication.

There are two reprocessing plants in the UK, both located at Sellafield in Cumbria. One, known as Building 205 (B205) treats waste fuel from the UK's aged Magnox reactors. The other, known as THORP, treats fuel from UK AGR reactors and reactors from abroad. Both are owned by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority and operated by British Nuclear Fuels Ltd (BNFL), a government owned company.

Reprocessing is recognised by the government as the largest source of radioactive pollution in the UK. Sellafield is also known to contribute 87% of the collective radiation dose to EC member states, from discharges into north European waters.

Continued operation of the reprocessing plants will make the UK into the biggest nuclear dustbin in the world. Containing massive stockpiles of nuclear weapons-usable plutonium, they are effectively bomb factories and highly vulnerable to terrorist attack.

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