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UK to claim over 2,900kg of foreign waste plutonium

UK to claim over 2,900kg of foreign waste plutonium
Britain is going to take ownership of 2,950 kg of waste plutonium that it has been storing at Sellafield nuclear facility for European companies and may reprocess it into fuel for a new generation of nuclear plants yet to be built, officials said.

Britain is home to more spent civilian plutonium than any other country in the world. The Office for Nuclear Regulation said that as of December 2011 Britain was storing 118.2 tons of plutonium, of which 27.9 tons is owned by foreign entities.

Now London wants to recycle some of the stored substance into mixed oxide fuel (MOX), to be used for a new generation of nuclear power stations, which are currently under discussion.

Tuesday, the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) announced the UK will take control of 1,850 kg of plutonium which was previously earmarked to repay France. In a series of complex swaps, Sellafield will assume control of 750 kg of German-owned plutonium and 350 kg of Dutch owned material.

The deal has been approved by Britain’s Nuclear Decommissioning Authority and the DECC insists that the change of ownership does not mean more nuclear fuel will be stored in the country. 

“There are advantages to having national control over more of the civil plutonium in the UK as this gives us greater influence over how we ultimately manage it,” Michael Fallon, Britain’s minister of state for energy, said in statement.

The DECC declined to say to what extent the ownership transfers benefited British taxpayers.

Sellafield nuclear plant in North England. (AFP Photo / Odd Andersen)

The UK government currently spends 2 billion pounds ($3.1 billion) a year on managing its growing plutonium mountain. These expenses are not expected to be alleviated soon. None of the new nuclear power stations are due to become operational until the 2020’s, and it is still unclear how many of them are going to be built. Even the MOX plant constructed by the French is not expected to be finished by 2015.

Plutonium is a radioactive by-product found in spent nuclear fuel when it is removed from a nuclear reactor. It can be recycled, although the process is expensive and technologically difficult It is used to make MOX fuel, which is an alternative to low-enriched uranium and usually comes as a blend of plutonium and uranium.

Some of the plutonium stored in Britain comes from the country’s own nuclear weapons program of the 1950’s and 1960’s and was created by the UK’s first generation of nuclear reactors – the Magnox reactor. 

Magnox reactors ended up producing far more plutonium than the UK needed, partly because they were operated for longer than envisaged and partly because during the miners’ strike of 1972 and 1974 and the three day week of 1973 they were run at full tilt just to keep the lights on.