Primary Author: Paul Brown @pbrown4348
Seventy years after the United Kingdom first began extracting plutonium from spent uranium fuel to make nuclear weapons, the industry is finally calling a halt to reprocessing, leaving the country with 120 tons of the metal, the biggest stockpile in the world. However, the government has no idea what to do with it.
Having spent hundreds of billions of pounds producing plutonium in a series of plants at Sellafield in the Lake District, the UK policy is to store it indefinitely—or until it can come up with a better idea. There is also 90,000 tons of less dangerous depleted uranium in warehouses in the UK, also without an end use.
Plans to use plutonium in fast breeder reactors and then mixed with uranium as a fuel for existing fission reactors have long ago been abandoned as too expensive, unworkable, or sometimes both. Even burning plutonium as a fuel, while technically possible, is very costly.
The closing of the last reprocessing plant, as with all nuclear endeavours, does not mean the end of the industry, in fact it will take at least another century to dismantle the many buildings and clean up the waste. In the meantime, it is costing £3 billion a year to keep the site safe.
Perhaps one of the strangest aspects of this story to outside observers is that, apart from a minority of anti-nuclear campaigners, this plutonium factory in one of prettiest parts of England hardly ever gets discussed or mentioned by the UK’s two main political parties. Neither has ever objected to what seems on paper to be a colossal waste of money.
The secret of this silence is that the parliamentary seats in the Lake District are all politically on a knife-edge. No candidate for either Conservative or Labour can afford to be anti-nuclear, otherwise the seat would certainly go to the opposition party.
The story of Sellafield matters, however, particularly to countries like Japan, which is poised to open its own reprocessing works at Rokkasho, Aomori in September. Strangely, too, this is one of Japan’s most scenic areas.
This plan is particularly controversial in a country that is the only one so far to have had nuclear bombs used against it. Like Britain, Japan has no obvious outlet for the plutonium it will produce, except nuclear weapons and fast breeder reactors, this last a technology Japan has already tried and has ended in failure. It also seems unnecessary because Japan already owns a plutonium stockpile of several tonnes from sending spent fuel to the UK to be reprocessed.
While there is much more opposition in Japan, including from the influential New Diplomacy Initiative, there is local support for the works because politicians see employment opportunities. But there is also international concern about the potential spread of nuclear weapon capability to Japan and beyond.
In Britain, reprocessing began in 1952 entirely as a military endeavour. The idea was to make hydrogen bombs so Britain could keep up with the United States and Russia in the nuclear arms race.