The UK government’s preferred policy for managing the UK civil plutonium stockpile is reuse and the conversion into MOX fuel for civil nuclear reactors, the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) confirmed in December, following a public consultation.

The UK currently has a civilian stockpile of around 112 tonnes of separated plutonium, including about 28 tonnes belonging to foreign utilities.

DECC considered three options for the management of the material: reuse as MOX fuel, immobilization and direct disposal or continued long-term storage. The reuse of plutonium as mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel was selected as the preferred solution. The previous UK policy was for the long-term storage of the material.

After considering over 100 responses to its public consultation the government said that converting the UK civil stockpile of plutonium into MOX remains the ‘most credible and technologically mature option for reuse.’ Any plutonium that cannot be converted into MOX, will be immobilised and treated as a waste for disposal, it said.

The UK recently decided to close its Sellafield MOX Plant (SMP) in a bid to prevent further taxpayer losses. SMP had produced just 15 tonnes of MOX fuel assemblies in its nine years of operation, against an original target of 560 tonnes over an expected ten-year operational life. But the government says that lessons from SMP and overseas experience “gives confidence that any new MOX plant will be successful.”

If the government decides to go ahead with a new MOX facility procurement activities could begin in 2015, licensing from 2017, construction from 2019 with operation of the new plant starting in 2025, according to an indicative timetable published by DECC.

The government and the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) will now gather information on the market for MOX fuel, as well as the cost and timescale for procurement of a MOX fabrication faciltiy. It could take 'several years' to reach a decision on whether using MOX should be implemented DECC said.

The government is not ruling out other options for management of plutonium, saying that it is “open to any alternative proposals that offer better value to the taxpayer.” One option proposed by GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy is the PRISM fast reactor, which the company says could deal with the country's plutonium stockpile in five years.

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Date: Tuesday, 06 December 2011
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