British Nuclear Fuels’ hopes of being allowed to start operating a new £460m mixed oxide fuel (Mox) plant at Sellafield improved last week, following a broadly positive progress report on the company from the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate.
The outcome of the safety regulator’s report was crucial for BNFL. Further orders for reprocessing fuel at Sellafied’s main £3.5bn Thorp facility are almost certainly contingent on customers being able to take back the plutonium arising from the process in the form of mixed oxide fuel. No nuclear utility in the world would want to face the security problems associated with shipping plutonium.
The Inspectorate said it was ‘encouraged by the vigour and commitment’ BNFL had given to addressing issues raised by three critical reports a year ago, after a scandal over the falsification of quality assurance data on fuel manufactured for Japan.The discovery obliged the company to pay £40m in compensation to Japan, and jeopardised its chances of starting up the £460m Sellafield Mox plant, which will make mixed oxide fuel from uranium and plutonium.
Chief executive Norman Askew warned at the end of last year that if there was no prospect of new Mox orders by last month, the company would have to write off the Mox plant investment.
The report said the company had now fully addressed the 15 recommendations it had made in respect of the Mox Demonstration Facility — where the quality assurance falsification took place in 1999 — and could now put forward a case for recommissioning the plant as a research facility.
It added this had clear implications for the start-up of the larger plant: ‘As part of our Mox plant inspection activities we are checking to see whether relevant lessons from the facility are being applied to this plant.’
The Mox plant is undergoing uranium commissioning, but the key decision will be the one that allows it to proceed to plutonium commissioning — a step that would take several months and instantly make the plant hugely expensive to decommission.
This go-ahead is not expected before the election and will depend on economic justification — sufficient commitments to place orders — as well as clearance from the safety regulator. While BNFL is saying nothing publicly, the position in respect of new orders has clearly improved since Askew’s ultimatum.
However, there is still more to do on the safety side. The report noted that many of the required changes in safety culture would take time to take effect.
‘We recognise there’s still a lot of work to be done,’ said a company spokesman.Greenpeace seized on the report’s admission that the company had so far met only three of the 28 recommendations covering the site as a whole in last year’s control and supervision reports as ‘a shocking indictment of Sellafield’s continuing safety crisis’.