Sellafield's future

Posted: 24th April 2020

For 70 years Britain has been dissolving spent nuclear fuel in acid,
separating the plutonium and uranium it contains and stockpiling the
plutonium in the hope of finding some peaceful use for it, to no avail: all
it has to show today is a UK plutonium stockpile. To comply with its
international obligations not to discharge any more liquid radioactive
waste into the Irish Sea, the United Kingdom government agreed more than 20
years ago under the Ospar Convention on the protection of the north-east
Atlantic to shut its nuclear fuel reprocessing works at Sellafield in
northwestern England at the end of this year. As well as 139 tonnes of
plutonium, which has to be both carefully stored to prevent a nuclear chain
reaction and protected by armed guards as well, to avoid terrorist attack,
there are thousands of tonnes of depleted uranium at Sellafield. The
reprocessing plant shut down prematurely as a result of a Covid-19 outbreak
among its employees, and most of the 11,500 workers there have been sent
home, leaving a skeleton staff to keep the site safe. Whether the plant
will be restarted after the epidemic is unknown. Fewer than half
Sellafield’s workers are involved in reprocessing. Most are engaged in
cleaning up after decades of nuclear energy generation and related
experiments. There are 200 buildings at the massive site, many of them
disused. It costs British taxpayers around £2.3 billion (US$2.8bn) a year
to run Sellafield and keep it safe. While the British government has been
reluctant to make any decision on what to do about its stockpiled plutonium
and uranium, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has expressed alarm
about the danger it poses. “The United Kingdom has to find a solution for
its plutonium stockpile, and quickly,” its report says. The scientists
point out that there is enough plutonium to make hundreds of thousands of
nuclear weapons, and that it is a permanent proliferation risk. The annual
cost of £73m to keep the plutonium safe is dwarfed by the much larger cost
of trying to make safe the whole site with its thousands of tonnes of
nuclear waste.

Climate News Network 23rd April 2020
Find out more – call Caroline on 01722 321865 or email us.