UK must reassess way it deals with plutonium stocks

21 March 2013
By Sofia Mitra-Thakur
Mobile version
Share |
A man walks along a road near the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing site near Seascale in Cumbria

A man walks along a road near the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing site near Seascale in Cumbria

The government has been urged to reassess its approach to dealing with the country’s huge plutonium stockpile.

A new policy statement from the Institution of Mechanical Engineers calls for the UK to adopt a portfolio of options to address the different types of plutonium stored in the UK, and highlights the urgent need for the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) to categorise these stocks.

The IMechE said the government should also consider using ‘fast reactors’ like those in development by GE Hitachi in the US and the Astrid project in France.

“There are estimates that it currently costs the UK taxpayer £80 million a year to safely store the country’s 112 tonnes of civil held plutonium,” said Dr Tim Fox, Head of Energy and Environment at the IMechE.

“In addition to costs, this material is highly toxic, radioactive and can be used to develop nuclear weapons, so dealing with it safely and securely is of critical importance to the nation's security.

“As we move forward in this country towards building new reactors, this becomes ever more urgent."

Dr Fox said the government’s current plan for dealing with the stockpile by focussing on finding a single solution was too limited, likely to be costly to the taxpayer, and risked issues of nuclear proliferation.

He said the government should treat the different grades of plutonium in the stockpile in different ways, and that the NDA urgently needed to start work on categorising and quantifying this material.

“For the part of the stockpile that is of the right grade the government should consider using it as fuel for ‘fast reactors’ like those being developed commercially by GE Hitachi in the US and by the Astrid project in France," he said.

“A fast reactor of this nature would help deal with a proportion of this material, effectively recycling the stockpile while generating low-carbon electricity.

“This type of reactor would make a small but useful contribution to UK energy security and it has been estimated that doing this could potentially generate £15 billion in its 60-year lifetime.”

The government’s preferred option is to combine plutonium stocks with uranium to make a Mixed Oxide (MOX) fuel, which could then be exported, but the IMechE said the market for this is limited and others have similar ambitions.

After use in conventional nuclear reactors, MOX leaves spent fuel in a state where the remaining plutonium is inaccessible but it will still need to be prepared for permanent geological disposal.  

The IMechE proposes that once the NDA categorises plutonium stocks:

• High-grade plutonium should be considered for manufacture into MOX fuel.

• Lower-grade plutonium should be identified for potential recycling in a fast reactor. The government, through the NDA, should fund modest assessment and development of the available fast reactor technologies; at this stage future licensing decisions cannot be prejudged, but the sodium-cooled fast reactor route is sufficiently attractive to merit significant immediate UK support.

• Poor-quality material should be earmarked for safe disposal, with investment required.

The UK’s plutonium stockpile is largely the result of the country’s early nuclear programme, when plutonium was previously seen as a fuel for future power production. 

Plans also included the UK taking spent fuel from overseas reactors for reprocessing and then selling it back to its country of origin for a fee; the stockpile includes about 28 tonnes of material belonging to overseas customers. However this did not occur.

Further information:

See the full IMechE policy statement on plutonium

Latest Issue

E&T cover image 1604

"Should the UK's engineers be in or out of Europe? The IET sets out its official position on the EU referendum this week - will you agree?"

->

E&T jobs

  • Solutions Engineer

    Bristol Water
    • United Kingdom
    • £41,000 - 49,000

    We serve a population of over one million people and all the associated businesses in an area of 1,000 square miles centered on Bristol.

    • Recruiter: Bristol Water

    Apply for this job

  • Senior Mechanical Engineer

    Bristol Water
    • United Kingdom
    • £41,000 - 49,000

    We serve a population of over one million people and all the associated businesses in an area of 1,000 square miles centered on Bristol.

    • Recruiter: Bristol Water

    Apply for this job

  • Software Renewals Manager

    BAE Systems
    • Preston, Lancashire, England
    • Negotiable

    Software Renewals Manager Would you like to work in a resourceful and developing role within IT Services? We currently have a vacancy for a Software Renewals Manager at our site in Preston Channel Way. As a Software Renewals Manager, you will be responsi

    • Recruiter: BAE Systems

    Apply for this job

  • Technical Manager

    Aggregate Industries
    • Hulland Ward, Ashbourne
    • Attractive salary plus comprehensive benefits

    A key Technical Manager role driving product improvement and compliance with Aggregate Industries, market leader in Construction Solutions.

    • Recruiter: Aggregate Industries

    Apply for this job

  • Field Application Engineer

    Intel
    • Madrid

    Responsible for giving product presentations to the customer describing how Intel products provide the optimum solution to their application.

    • Recruiter: Intel

    Apply for this job

  • Engineers and Scientists

    European Patent Office
    • Munich and The Hague
    • See job description

    We are looking for Engineers and scientists in various technical fields for our locations in Munich and The Hague.

    • Recruiter: European Patent Office

    Apply for this job

  • Director of Product Management

    EMS Recruitment Group
    • West Yorkshire
    • Circa £70,000 PA + car allowance, excellent benefits including lucrative bonus scheme

    Our client is the undoubted world leader in their field. A highly innovative and progressive specialist electro-mechanical product manufacturer....

    • Recruiter: EMS Recruitment Group

    Apply for this job

  • Electrical Engineer

    Premium job

    Scottish Prison Service
    • Edinburgh, City of Edinburgh
    • £40,654 to £48,579 plus annual supplement of £10,000

    Build Your Engineering Career. The Scottish Prison Service (SPS) is an Agency of the Scottish Government, working in partnership.....

    • Recruiter: Scottish Prison Service

    Apply for this job

  • Sales Electronics Engineer

    Premium job

    Precision Microdrives
    • London (Greater)
    • £25,000 - £30,000 starting salary, inclusive of on-target commissions.

    Precision Microdrives (PMD) is a fast growing technology company that designs, produces and trades miniature electro-mechanical mechanisms

    • Recruiter: Precision Microdrives

    Apply for this job

  • Installation and Commissioning Engineer

    Premium job

    Crest Solutions
    • Corby
    • Competitive

    You will be involved in installation, commissioning & servicing of printing and machine vision related solutions.

    • Recruiter: Crest Solutions

    Apply for this job

More jobs ▶

Subscribe

Choose the way you would like to access the latest news and developments in your field.

Subscribe to E&T