May 23, 2001



Claire Herdman

Radioactive Substances Division

Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions

4/F6 Ashedown House

123 Victoria Street

London SW1E 6DE




BY FACSIMILE 011 44 20 74944 6340



Nuclear Control Institute Comments for

Sellafield Mixed-Oxide Fuel Plant (SMP) Consultation



The Nuclear Control Institute (NCI), a non-proliferation research and advocacy center located in Washington, DC, USA, submits the following comments to the Sellafield MOX Plant (SMP) Consultation.


NCI believes that the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) should not authorize hot testing of SMP with plutonium or other radioactive materials, nor should SMP be commissioned to manufacture MOX fuel. Instead, DTI and British Nuclear Fuels Ltd. (BNFL) should fully consider and analyze the option of converting SMP into a facility to immobilize a substantial portion of the U.K.s stockpile of separated civil plutonium in a vitrified form of highly radioactive waste (also known as high-activity liquor, or HAL) for direct permanent disposal.[1] Any decision on full operation of SMP should be postponed until such time as an ongoing BNFL analysis of plutonium immobilization, and of the potential conversion of SMP to a plutonium-immobilization plant, has been concluded.[2] This study should be vetted through an appropriate process of public participation.Any decision on commissioning of SMP should also await a decision on whether separated U.K. civil plutonium should be classified as waste.


1.There is no energy-security or market-demand justification for the fabrication or use of MOX fuel.


As noted in BNFLs consultation documents, Euratom directives require that the benefits of operating this plant must be found to exceed the negative consequences of its operation. It should now be clear that this requirement cannot be met. Contrary to assertions by BNFL, no benefits will ensue from the operation of SMP because there is no significant demand for the plant's MOX fuel. Natural uranium is in ample supply, enough to ensure the supply of non-weapons-usable fuel in low-enriched or unenriched form for the world's nuclear power reactors for decades to come. The original assumption that uranium would be in short supply has been proven false, as the continuing decline in the price of uranium confirms.


In addition, the further assumption that plutonium would be utilized in fast breeder reactors has been proven false, as the demise of the British, French, German and Japanese breeder programs attests. The only imperative for operating SMP is to get rid of plutonium that has been separated from spent fuel pursuant to reprocessing contracts that utilities entered into on the basis of the earlier false assumptions. But given the far greater expense of MOX fuel relative to uranium fuel, as well as the undeniable proliferation and security risks associated with commerce in plutonium (see next section), the plutonium should be immobilized and disposed of directly as waste.


2.MOX fuel poses a nuclear proliferation threat.


MOX fuel is now being championed by BNFL as an alternative fuel for conventional light-water reactors. This policy raises severe proliferation and security risks.The U.K. government understands that the plutonium in fresh MOX fuel, which the IAEA classifies as a direct use material, can be separated by straightforward chemical means and be made into nuclear weapons. A country that possesses MOX fuel, therefore, must be considered to possess the essential material for manufacturing nuclear weapons. BNFL's campaign to recruit new customers for SMP could directly contribute to nuclear proliferation in East Asia and eventually could legitimate plutonium commerce in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. In addition, MOX-fuel and plutonium commerce poses a risk of theft or diversion by criminal organizations or terrorist groups. A study presented to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) earlier this month documented hundreds of instances of smuggling of nuclear materials, ten percent of which involved weapons-grade plutonium or uranium, and identified 130 terrorist groups capable of making a nuclear bomb.[3]


3.MOX fuel irradiation in light-water reactors poses a safety threat.


Beyond the global proliferation and security risks, use of MOX fuel is an unattractive option for nuclear power utilities. MOX fuel is more hazardous to plant workers than all-uranium fuel because of plutoniums radiotoxicity. MOX fuel requires greater physical protection because the plutonium it contains is atom-bomb material. In addition, MOX fuel decreases safety margins in light-water reactors and magnifies the risk of cancer fatalities from a severe accident compared with low-enriched uranium fuel.A severe accident in a light-water reactor fueled entirely with MOX fuel fabricated from reactor-grade plutonium would cause four times more latent cancer fatalities than the same accident involving a reactor fueled entirely with low-enriched uranium fuel.[4]


4. There is no significant market for MOX fuel produced at SMP.


There has recently developed substantial doubt about the future of reprocessing and MOX-fuel plans in all of BNFLs overseas markets. It was reported earlier this month that Sellafields main international customers have threatened to withdraw their business, throwing the Cumbrian nuclear complex into an unprecedented crisis, according to confidential documentsThe documents show that nuclear power companies in Germany, Japan, Switzerland, Holland and Italy have warned BNFLthat they are considering abandoning contracts worth 6 billion to have their used nuclear fuel reprocessed there.They also reveal that the customers are on the verge of a complete loss of confidence in the firm.[5] There is no reason to believe that these companies would contract for MOX fabrication at SMP if they were to cancel their baseload reprocessing contracts with BNFL; quite simply, there would be far less separated plutonium feedstock (and therefore little demand) for the MOX fuel.


German and Swedish nuclear utilities recently have signed letters of intent for the fabrication of MOX fuel at SMP. BNFL has claimed that these deals mean that 40% of SMPs capacity is now contracted or reserved, bringing the SMP project above its s0-called break-even threshold.[6] These BNFL statements are highly misleading, because such letters of intent do not represent binding contracts. Indeed, the Swedish government has not even approved use of MOX fuel in Swedish reactors.[7] The German governments commitment to purchase and use of MOX fuel is still highly uncertain in light of ongoing negotiations on the implementation of the nuclear-power phaseout and the consensus agreements 2005 deadline for German utilities to send spent fuel to Sellafield for reprocessing.[8] It is believed that BNFL still only has actual signed contracts for slightly over 9% of SMPs MOX-fabrication capacity, far below the 40% required for BNFL to break even on the project.


Japan is officially committed to use of plutonium, but there is mounting international controversy over Japanese transports of MOX fuel and reprocessing wastes from Europe.Japan also faces domestic controversy over falsified quality control data on MOX fuel shipped from BNFL, as well as safety and security risks associated with use of this highly radiotoxic, weapons-usable fuel. It is now by no means certain that Japanese utilities will sign contracts with BNFL for large-scale MOX fabrication. If the MOX option proves not viable in Japan for political or economic reasons, the tens of tonnes of Japanese plutonium extracted from spent fuel at THORP would have to be stockpiled there, and immobilization as waste would become a prime disposal option.


Even if Japanese utilities sign contracts with BNFL for MOX fuel fabrication at the Sellafield MOX Plant, much of this MOX fuel might never leave Sellafield. This is because BNFL, in order to avoid stockpiling of MOX fuel in Japan, has announced that MOX fuel will be shipped to reactors in Japan "according to their loading schedule." At present, only three Japanese reactors have been formally approved by the Japanese Government to use MOX fuel, and the first core of MOX fuel is yet to be loaded. Given the record of delays in implementing Japan's plutonium program, it could be a decade or more before most Japanese nuclear utilities are licensed to use MOX, even assuming the MOX program eventually goes forward. Thus, MOX fuel may join the foreign spent fuel, reprocessing waste, and low- and intermediate-level nuclear waste now accumulating in storage in the United Kingdom.


In a nuclear-fuel market flooded with cheap uranium and SWU, MOX fuel is highly unlikely to expand its market share in the near future. In 1995, the French utility EDF in changed its bookkeeping practices to assign an economic value of zero to its plutonium stocks,[9] and EDF estimated earlier this year that MOX fuel costs about three to four times more than the equivalent LEU fuel.[10] In its own economic review of reprocessing and MOX fuel, EDF concluded that the extra cost of using MOX fuel instead of LEU fuel amounts to about 3 million francs per metric ton of fuel.[11] There is no reason to believe these price disparities will change favorably for MOX fuel in the near future. It is therefore unreasonable to assume that additional unanticipated business for SMP will arise to make its future operation profitable or desirable.


  1. MOX fuel is a poor method of disposing of surplus U.K. plutonium.


The United Kingdom is now burdened with a domestic stockpile of more than 60 tonnes of civil separated plutonium. (An additional 10 tonnes is owned by foreign customers.) The domestic stockpile of U.K. plutonium will grow to more than 100 tonnes if future reprocessing of U.K. Magnox and AGR fuel proceeds as planned.[12] No plan for the use or disposal of this plutonium has yet been determined.Recent authoritative reports have suggested, and the U.K. Government should give serious consideration to, declaring this separated civil plutonium to be waste.[13]


MOX-fuel irradiation, though viewed favorably by many in the British nuclear sector, is not a realistic or desirable means of plutonium disposal for the United Kingdom. Only one U.K. nuclear reactor now operating, Sizewell B, would be capable of using MOX fuel of the type that would be fabricated at SMP, but British Energy has rejected MOX use on economic grounds. Even if British Energy were to agree to accept MOX, Sizewell Bs fuel demand would not be nearly sufficient to consume over 100 tonnes of plutonium contained in MOX fuel. For this reason, Barker and Sadnicki estimated that two new twin-unit AP600 nuclear power stations would need to be constructed and operated, if the U.K. were to disposition all its surplus plutonium by means of MOX. There is little reason to believe that new nuclear-power stations are likely to be constructed in the U.K. anytime soon, and speculative discussion about such hypothetical reactors should not serve as a planning basis for SMP. Moreover, such a MOX-fuel scheme would cost upwards of 1.9 billion (total undiscounted costs) and require more than four decades to complete.


On a technical level, MOX fuel irradiation in light-water reactors cannot make a significant contribution to the disposition of surplus civil plutonium. Plutonium advocates often imply, when addressing non-technical audiences, that plutonium can be recycled in a closed fuel cycle until it is entirely used up. Such complete burning of plutonium in MOX is impossible. After only one recycle, the isotopics of plutonium are such that it becomes technically and economically unattractive to re-irradiate the plutonium in fresh MOX fuel,[14] and the irradiated MOX fuel must be disposed of as waste. Moreover, even the most fervent MOX supporters (France and Russia) do not currently plan to reprocess LWR MOX fuel even once for recovery and re-use of plutonium.


Any purported waste-management benefits of plutonium recycling are forfeited by the use of MOX fuel. In regard to volume and toxicity, irradiated MOX fuel is considerably worse than irradiated LEU fuel for three reasons. First, reprocessing itself creates substantial intermediate- and low-level waste streams. When this waste is taken into account, the volume of reprocessing waste products requiring deep geological disposal is greater than the volume of waste from the equivalent amount of once-through LEU fuel by at least a factor of ten.[15] Second, the key variable determining the volume requirements for a geologic repository is the total heat loading, not the physical volume of the spent fuel.In this regard, MOX spent fuel creates much greater heat loading than the comparable amount of LEU spent fuel, at least during the first hundred years or so when heat loading is most significant.[16] Third, irradiated MOX fuel has considerably more radiotoxic content than its LEU fuel equivalent.[17]


6.     The Sellafield MOX Plant should be converted to a plutonium-immobilization facility.


DTI and BNFL should seriously consider and analyze the option of converting SMP into a facility to immobilize a substantial portion of the U.K.s stockpile of separated civil plutonium in a vitrified form of highly radioactive waste (also known as high-activity liquor, or HAL) for direct permanent disposal.


Immobilization of plutonium has been proven to be technically feasible by several years of research and development by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). In 1997, DOE selected immobilization as one of the technologies to be utilized in its dual-track approach to dispose of up to 50 tonnes of plutonium declared surplus to defense needs.[18] According to a report by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, DOEs immobilization development & testing (D&T) program (had it been fully supported in the FY01 and subsequent DOE budgets) would have provided the technical support needed for a hot start-up of a full-scale immobilization plant by 2008.[19] DOE is confident that research results to date confirm the overall feasibility and practicality of the can-in-can technology for plutonium immobilization.[20]


SMP could be converted to the production of ceramic plutonium pucks for immobilization with vitrified HAL as a radiation barrier, or it could be converted to fabricate so-called low-spec MOX. In this process, plutonium-uranium oxide pellets are fabricated and placed in fuel rods, but the rods are inserted in self-protecting, highly radioactive spent-fuel assemblies rather than being irradiated in a reactor. This low-spec MOX need not meet the quality-control standards required for MOX fuel destined for a reactor. NCI recommends that BNFL and the U.K. Government assess these options thoroughly, incorporating the results of BNFLs ongoing stakeholders review of plutonium-disposition options. Adequate opportunity should be provided for public participation and consultation.


NCI prefers that separated plutonium be immobilized with a radiation barrier adequate to meet the spent fuel standard. The radiation barrier is an important element of the proliferation resistance of any final waste form. Barker and Sadnicki estimate that immobilization of U.K. separated civil plutonium with a radiation barrier would cost considerably more than fabricating it into MOX fuel. However, their analysis did not include the full cost of building the two new AP600-type light-water reactors that would be required for MOX irradiation under this scenario.[21] If immobilization proves to be more expensive than MOX (and it well may not), NCI recommends that the U.K. Government should be prepared to offset any such additional cost because of the added value of protection against proliferation and security risks that would accrue from the immobilized waste form.Cost sharing for immobilizing foreign plutonium could be arranged with those governments that eventually prefer to have plutonium returned in immobilized rather than MOX form.


According to Barker and Sadnicki, if SMP were converted to a plutonium-immobilization plant, immobilization of 106 tonnes of U.K. separated civil plutonium could be completed between 2017 and 2023. This timeframe compares very favorably with a MOX-fuel approach that would load its final fuel into reactors in 2041, nearly two decades later than the projected completion of immobilization.[22]

Converting SMP to a plutonium-immobilization facility, and using that facility to dispose of the U.K.s unneeded stockpile of separated civil plutonium, would establish an important non-proliferation example for the rest of the world.Conversely, a decision by the Government to commission this fuel-fabrication plant would result in a widening web of commerce in plutonium, an atom-bomb material, as well as a prolongation of spent-fuel reprocessing and associated environmental contamination, and an increase in all categories of toxic, radioactive waste. For these reasons, NCI strongly opposes the commissioning of SMP for the manufacture of MOX fuel.






Steven Dolley Paul Leventhal

Research Director President

[1] This alternative is the subject of a detailed new study by Fred Barker and Mike Sadnicki. Fred Barker & Michael Sadnicki, The Disposition of Civil Plutonium in the U.K., April 2001 (hereafter cited as Barker & Sadnicki).

[2]BNFL Proposals for Further Work in Response to Recommendations 8 and 9 of the Plutonium Working Group Interim Report December 2000. This study, which will compare immobilization with MOX options, is being prepared for review by the Plutonium Working Group, under the auspices of the Environment Council. The study is due to be completed between January and June, 2002.


[3]Rob Edwards, UN says 130 terrorist groups capable of nuclear attack, Sunday Herald, May 13, 2001.

[4] Edwin Lyman, Public Health Risks of Substituting Mixed-Oxide for Uranium Fuel in Pressurized Water Reactors, Science & Global Security, 2000, Volume 9 (forthcoming), Table C.2, p. 39. pdf/lyman-mox-sgs.pdf


[5] Severin Carrell & Geoffrey Lean, Foreign Firms Threaten Crisis for Sellafield, Independent on Sunday, May 13, 2001.


[6] Britains BNFL Says New Deal Means MOX Break-Even, Reuters News Service, May 8, 2001; Mary Fagan, BNFL Lands Swedish Contract, London Telegraph, May 7, 2001.


[7] Ariane Sanes, OKG and Framatome ANP Agree on MOX Manufacture at Sellafield, NuclearFuel, May 14, 2001, p. 8.


[8] Ann MacLachlan, French, German Leaders Agree to Resume Nuclear Waste, Spent Fuel Shipments, NuclearFuel, February 5, 2001, p. 8.


[9] Ann MacLachlan, "EDF to Erase Positive Pu Value in 1995 Accounts," Nucleonics Week, November 2, 1995, p. 14.


[10] Ann MacLachlan, Eurodif Amortization Challenges Cost of MOX Fuel for EDF, NuclearFuel, January 22, 2001, p. 4.


[11] Ann MacLachlan, New French Report Says Pu Recycle Uneconomic, NuclearFuel, August 21, 2000, p. 4.


[12] The Royal Society, Management of Separated Plutonium, London, January 1998, p.1.


[13] Royal Society, ibid; House of Lords, Select Committee on Science and Technology, Management of Nuclear Waste, March 10, 1999.


[14] Ann MacLachlan, EDF Resists Pressure to Admit Uncertain Future for Spent MOX,NuclearFuel, May 14, 2001, p. 11.


[15] Frank von Hippel, Nuclear Fuel and Radioactive Waste Disposal, Paper Prepared for the Energy Research Foundation, January 1983.


[16] This was the conclusion of a recent analysis by the National Assessment Committee, the committee charged with reviewing Frances programs for nuclear waste management. Ann MacLachlan, French Experts Warn of New Problems with Disposing of Spent MOX Fuel, NuclearFuel, July 10, 2000, p. 1.


[17] U.S. Office of Technology Assessment, Managing the Nation's Commercial High-Level Radioactive Waste, March 1985, p. 72; J. Malherbe et al., "Influence of High Burn Up on the High Level Waste Reprocessing Waste Management," in Proceedings of the International Topical Meeting, High Level Radioactive Waste Management, Volume 2, Las Vegas, Nevada, April 8-12, 1990, p. 1395.


[18] U.S. Department of Energy, Record of Decision for the Storage and Disposition of Weapons-Usable Fissile Materials Final Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement, Federal Register, January 21, 1997, pp. 3014-3030. The FY2001 DOE budget proposed by the Bush Administration would suspend research on the immobilization option. Brandon Haddock, Energy Agency Halts Site Project, Augusta Chronicle, March 20, 2001. It should be noted that this decision was made on fiscal rather than technical grounds, and DOE plans to reactivate the immobilization program in the future.


[19] Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Westinghouse Savannah River Company, Argonne National Laboratory, and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Integrated Development and Testing Plan for the Plutonium Immobilization Project, UCRL-ID-131608/Rev. 3, March 27, 2000, p. viii.


[20] U.S. Department of Energy, Plutonium Immobilization Technology Successfully Demonstrated, DOE News, August 18, 1999. The can-in-can approach entails the fabrication of ceramic pucks of plutonium which are then placed in cans to be inserted into the canisters into which the vitrified HAL is poured.


[21] Barker & Sadnicki, p. 225, Table 73; p. 227. Barker & Sadnicki calculated that fabricating 106 metric tonnes of plutonium into MOX fuel and irradiating it would cost over 1.9 billion, whereas immobilization options incorporating a radiation barrier would cost from 2.3 to over 3 billion. Ibid, p. 226, Figures 43 & 44. Their 1.9 billion estimate for the MOX-irradiation approach includes less than half the capital costs of two new light-water reactors, with the authors assuming that BNFL would be able to raise the remainder of the capital expenditure on the open market. Ibid, p. 152, paragraph 378. If this highly questionable assumption is rejected, and the full capital costs of the two new reactors are instead charged to the MOX-irradiation project, the MOX options would have an estimated cost of over 3.3 billion, considerably more expensive than the authors highest cost estimate for the immobilization option.


[22] Barker & Sadnicki, p. 218, Table 72.