Nuclear Fuel Reprocessing at Sellafield and Birmingham ‘Nuclear’ Trains: The Truth

Since our last report, on the 10th of November:  Jenny\’s Story we have become aware that:

(1) There has been confusion over where nuclear fuel trains have been coming from, or going to, when they pass through Birmingham, and whether there has been any increase in the number of trains.   We are advised by long term nuclear train watchers like Jenny Maxwell and Dave Polden that the trains would be coming from Hinkley and Oldbury.  They would be going to Sellafield.    Some train journeys are not admitted to on the available timetables.  In addition to trains through Moseley and Kings Heath there are definitely  extra trains in the system which crop up from time time.  These obviously are going through Bournville, or … Hall Green.  (One photographed at Bordesley last June).  However, from a Birmingham point of view,  it is  is the fact that trains are going through – various –  Birmingham suburbs to Sellafield which is the key issue, rather than whether there has been any increase in the number of trains.  They do NOT need to go through Birmingham.

(2) There has been some mixed reaction to concerns over spent fuel trains passing through Birmingham.  Whilst some people have agreed that local bloggers are right to question whether these trains should pass through Birmingham, others have seemed to shrug and to say that if even one disagrees with nuclear power, lets face it,  the fuel exists and has to be dealt with somehow.  There seems a surprisingly widespread assumption that this  old fuel  is now simply being made safe: stored for the amount of time it takes before it is no longer radioactive …  everything is under control, oh, and, um,  it is has all been going on for a long time, without any taking much notice since the 1980s … so that makes it perfectly all right … doesn’t it?

The truth is somewhat different.   Old fuel takes thousands of years before it is ‘safe’.  No short cut has been found.   Moreover, this spent fuel going for reprocessing, and there could, in the fairly near future, be an increase in this material.  The rest of our blog post is guest written by former Kings Heath resident and now editor of the Edinburgh-based website, Pete Roche.  See also the documents Pete refers to, which are linked to here, at the end of Pete’s short article.  Pete writes:

The Government assumes that spent fuel from the UK’s proposed new reactors won’t be reprocessed, but there is nothing stopping the nuclear industry coming forward with proposals. At the moment it is assumed that the new spent fuel will probably be stored at the new reactor sites for anything up to 160 years, but the industry is also looking at the possibility of storing the spent fuel in a centralised facility somewhere, which would of course probably mean transporting it by train.

Spent fuel from existing reactors is mostly still reprocessed. Only Sizewell B is storing its spent fuel on site. All of the  spent fuel from the old Magnox reactors, like Oldbury in Gloucestershire, is reprocessed in the older of Sellafield’s two reprocessing plants, known as B205, or the Magnox reprocessing plant.

The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) also has responsibility for the following:

— AGR spent fuel reprocessed so far                  2,300 tonnes
— AGR contracted to be reprocessed                  2,500 tonnes
— AGR spent fuel un-contracted                          4,100 tonnes
— Overseas oxide fuel still to be reprocessed         600 tonnes
— Exotic Fuels                                                           150 tonnes (1)

AGRs are Advanced Gas-cooled reactors likely Hinkley B in Somerset.

The NDA says its present strategy is to complete overseas and AGR reprocessing contracts as soon as reasonably practicable and cease reprocessing at THORP – the newer of Sellafield’s two reprocessing plants This means reprocessing around 3,100 tonnes of spent fuel. The NDA says it is currently deciding how much AGR fuel should be reprocessed and the most appropriate time to stop oxide fuel reprocessing, and that it will complete a credible options study soon and aims to identify a preferred strategic option within the next 18 months. It’s latest draft strategy for the next five years gives a few clues – it certainly looks as though they would like to keep THORP going as long as possible.  So any pressure against reprocessing in the next 18 months will help.

Technical problems at the two reprocessing plants at Sellafield mean that the throughput since around 2005 has been relatively low.  Assuming these problems are resolved, discharges of radioactivity into the Irish Sea are likely to increase, reaching a peak between 2013 – 2016.  At the same time the UK’s  last two remaining Magnox stations, Oldbury and Wylfa, have had their lives extended, adding to the inventory of fuel to be reprocessed.   Whilst the NDA publicly states that the UK can meet its obligations under the OSPAR Treaty (On Pollution in the North East Atlantic) to ensure discharges of radioactive substances are reduced to levels where concentrations in the marine environment above historic levels are close to zero by 2020, this is looking increasingly doubtful, even without increasing the inventory of fuel to be reprocessed, because there is a lag about five years after the reprocessing plants close before liquid discharges ends (2)

(1) Figures from Topic Strategy: Oxide Fuel, NDA 2010

(2) See the Nuclear Free Local Authority’s briefing about discharges of radioactivity from Sellafield into the Irish Sea.


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