Page last updated at 14:14 GMT, Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Sellafield returns nuclear waste to Japan


BBC reporter Jorn Madslien has had exclusive access to the Sellafield site where the nuclear waste is transported from

By Jorn Madslien
Business reporter, BBC News, Sellafield

The first shipment of highly radioactive waste from the UK has left the Sellafield nuclear site, the BBC has learnt.

It has been loaded onto a ship specifically designed to carry nuclear waste that will sail for Japan later.

The waste is a by-product of nuclear fuel spent by Japanese reactors that was sent to the UK for reprocessing during the 1980s and 1990s.

Some campaigners have criticised the shipments, saying they are dangerous.

"It is highly irresponsible for the industry to still be sending this kind of material across the world," said anti-nuclear campaigner Martin Forward.

Jorn Madslien
Jorn Madslien, business reporter, Sellafield

Standing next to a 113-tonne metal cylinder filled to the brim with highly radioactive waste is a good way to get the heart racing - especially when that cylinder is dangling mid-air from a moving crane.

But the small group of workers at the Sellafield nuclear complex remain calm during the careful loading of the first ever high-level nuclear waste shipment set to leave the UK.

But if the workers are cool, their cargo is hot. The flask, which is being shipped to Japan, contains 28 steel canisters filled with high-level nuclear waste, each emitting heat.

As I brush against the steel surface, I can feel a warm breeze of air coming from the shiny metal.

But Sellafield spokesman Mike Johnson said the site was simply fulfilling its contractual obligations, and government policy, in transporting the waste safely.

Only two countries, the UK and France, have been engaged in the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel from power stations.

The process involves extracting reusable uranium and plutonium from the fuel, leaving behind a liquid waste.

Japan has storage facilities in place already, having received 12 shipments of high level nuclear waste from France in recent years.

Over the next decade, high-level waste will also be returned to European countries.

Returning waste to countries that have benefited from nuclear energy production is in line with both global agreements and UK government policy.

Profitable shipment

For Sellafield, it is also a source of revenue, as the company - which runs the site under a contract with the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority - is being paid by the government for meeting targets set as part of a complex contract that involves the decommissioning, reprocessing and waste management at the site.

"This is a performance-based milestone," Mike Johnson, executive director of Sellafield's waste and effluent disposal, told BBC News. "This is one of the ways we earn our fees."

Sellafield declined to reveal the payment details.

Revenue loss

Sellafield's high-level nuclear waste storage is one of the most concentrated sources of radioactivity anywhere in the world.

Nuclear waste plant at Sellafield

When measured by volume, 65% of Britain's total waste is stored there, though it accounts for about 95% of the waste when measured by radioactivity.

It is also widely seen as the most complex nuclear facility in the world, because its waste is derived from a broad range of weapons and energy production - in the UK and abroad - during a period in history when the focus was more on quick solutions than on how to deal with their aftermath.

For the UK, the shipment goes one step towards reversing the country's reputation as the nuclear dustbin of the world - although, over time, it will also lead to a fall in revenue from nations currently paying for their nuclear waste to be stored at Sellafield.

Image showing nuclear waste flask and locator map
The UK plans to return 1,850 flasks of waste over the next 10 years, averaging about one shipment per year.
Each flask contains 28 stainless steel canisters of Highly Active Waste (HAW) in solid glass form.
They will be sent by rail to Barrow in Furness and from there shipped to Japan via an undisclosed route, arriving before the end of March 2010.

Domestic challenge

In about 10 years, high-level nuclear waste, equivalent to the waste created by the nuclear fuel received, will have been returned to all Sellafield's foreign customers.

Afterwards, the UK will nevertheless be left with waste from decades of weapons programmes, research and energy production, which means the repatriation of waste will do little to provide a solution to the waste management challenge facing the UK.

Current nuclear waste storage facilities have evolved during the past 50 years, though they are still defined as temporary solutions.

Plans for the construction of an underground repository have been discussed for decades, but as yet, no firm decisions have been made.

In the meantime, the nuclear shipments will open up space in the current storage facilities, which have been designed to cope with much more high-level waste than is currently there.

Made in the UK

In simple terms, nuclear reprocessing involves cutting up spent nuclear fuel rods into small bits that are dissolved in acid.

Uranium and plutonium is extracted from the mix, and this can be reused to make new nuclear fuel, which is then returned to nuclear power plants.

The remainder is then waste in a liquid form.

This is kept in evaporation and storage tanks for long periods, eventually being reduced to a powdery substance that is then dissolved in liquid glass heated to some 1,100C.

This cocktail is then poured into steel canisters that resemble milk churns.

In the case of Sellafield, the high-level waste canisters are then stored in a massive building that looks like an ordinary warehouse from the outside.

Inside, the canisters are stacked on top of each other and the radioactivity is contained by about 10ft (3m) of concrete shielding and two-feet thick concrete lids.

In the future, the plan is to start treating spent fuel from nuclear power plants as waste, rather than trying to extract and reuse the plutonium and uranium to create new fuel.

Many in the nuclear industry seem convinced that this is not a sustainable way of working, given anticipated shortages of both these valuable chemical elements.

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