Thorp threat to BNFL work

Reprocessing business is put in jeopardy by lengthy shutdown of Sellafield plant

British Nuclear Fuels’ main £5bn reprocessing business could cease to be viable, after the disclosure this week that full production at its main Sellafield plant may not resume for months.

The £3bn Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant was forced to shut down last December after the discovery of a potentially dangerous blockage in pipework.

The delay in restarting Thorp has put a question mark over the long-term viability of BNFL’s reprocessing operations, one of its core businesses. It could also scupper plans to partially privatise BNFL.

The Nuclear Installations Inspectorate must approve Thorp’s restart but has so far received only an outline programme for resuming operations. `We still require further safety submissions,’ said a spokesman. He added that a lower level of operation would be required initially.

Because of the problem, Thorp reprocessed only just over half the 900 tonnes of spent fuel scheduled for 1998-9. Another large shortfall in 1999-2000 may undermine the plant’s economics.

BNFL has always maintained that Thorp would make a £500m profit in its first ten years, which are covered by contracts worth over £5bn. But this depends on reprocessing 8,000 tonnes of fuel – a target now in doubt.

Neil Baldwin, head of reprocessing at Sellafield, said adjustments to the fuel schedule and design improvements should allow reprocessing programme to continue `without significant further disruption’.

But he admitted it would be a challenge to meet the programme’s targets.