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Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

(June 21, 2007) In April 2005 a INES-level 3 spillage accident led to the shut down of the Thermal Oxide reprocessing plant at Sellafield. Now, two years later, the operator is preparing Thorp for restart, but experiencing problems. The two-year outage of the Thorp facility in Sellafield, has led to a backlog of work, which the owners now hopes to relieve somewhat by proposing to send nuclear waste in advance and which would ease customers' tension over unfulfilled recycling contracts.

(657.5806) WISE-Amsterdam - Existing reprocessing contracts stipulate that the uranium, plutonium and wastes contained in overseas customers spent nuclear fuel when it is delivered to Sellafield, is returned to those customers once the fuel has been reprocessed at THORP. The NDA is now seeking to make the returns to overseas customers before their spent fuel is reprocessed - drawing materials from stocks already held at Sellafield.

The completely unheralded announcement by the NDA of the need to switch to what it has called 'Advance Allocation' of materials - known to most as 'virtual reprocessing' (where no reprocessing actually takes place), is a clear indication of the mounting pressures from THORP's extended closure following an accident in April 2005. With the plant now closed for over two years and with the likelihood that it will not re-open until Autumn this year at the earliest, overseas customers (principally from German and Swiss utilities) will be increasingly concerned about further delays in getting their material returned. They have already voiced their frustration at BNG's inability to operate THORP safely and to schedule.

Approval for virtual reprocessing is being sought by the NDA from the Government's Department of Trade & Industry (DTI) which has already launched a six-week public consultation, advising that it is 'presently minded to endorse the NDA proposal'. The consultation document cites a worst-case scenario of THORP being unable to re-start until around 2010/11. It adds that if THORP did not re-open at all, the Government would consider keeping all un-reprocessed overseas fuel in the UK, or sending the spent fuel to another reprocessor in Europe.

With around 800 tonnes of overseas spent fuel still waiting to be reprocessed at THORP if or when it re-starts, some observers are questioning why - if virtual reprocessing is approved, the plant needs to be re-opened at all. With sufficient plutonium and other materials for customers' needs already stockpiled at Sellafield - none of the outstanding spent fuel would have to be reprocessed.

DTI approval is necessary because the government's 2002 white paper, Managing the Nuclear Legacy, requires approval from the secretary of state for any changes to existing contracts at Thorp. The NDA said: "The proposal would guarantee the availability of nuclear materials to overseas customers on a timescale that meets their needs and which best facilitiates the timely return of waste, plutonium and uranium." The DTI consultation on the proposal runs until 26 July

In 2005 it was discovered that a small pipe had fractured within THORP in a highly radioactive cell, leaking 83,000 liters dissolved reactor fuel undetected. Because it would have been very difficult to repair the pipe, engineers devised a new operating process which was subsequently approved by regulators the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate in January this year. According to World Nuclear News THORP operator British Nuclear Group Sellafield is preparing THORP for restart, but experiencing some problems concerning evaporators unrelated to the pipe break.

Source: CORE Briefing, 18 June 2007; World Nuclear News, 15 June 2007; Nuclear Monitor, 653, 19 March 2007
Contact: Cumbrians Opposed to a Radioactive Environment (CORE), 98 Church St., Barrow, Cumbria LA14 2HJ, UK
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