Plutonium stockpiles: reorganize and recycle, or Anarchy in the UK?

Get ready for a righteous fight over plutonium in the UK. The World Nuclear News reports that the UK government is thinking seriously about recycling the country’s civilian plutonium for electric power generation. It has launched consultations on the question of whether to do that, or entrain the stuff permanently in glass logs and dispose of it, or just keep it in long term storage.

The UK has been in the plutonium recycling game since the 1950s. Most of the activity involved in this, from getting the stuff out of used reactor fuel to making mixed oxide (MOX) fuel, occurs at the Sellafield complex in northwestern England. However, if the UK does decide to recycle its civilian plutonium, the intent appears to be to build a new MOX manufacturing plant rather than relying on the existing Sellafield MOX plant.

Watch for every anti-nuke in Great Britain to come out against recycling. Yes, all that talk about the Three Rs is just that—talk. They’d rather kill the civilian nuclear industry and risk letting the country shiver in the dark than admit it’s possible to enjoy the benefits of cheap plentiful electricity.

And, since according to the anti-nuclear crowd it is impossible to store nuclear material, their recommendation is bound to be that the plutonium should be thrown out.

If my prediction proves right, we’ll be treated to the spectacle of self-proclaimed “greens” opposing a large-scale recycling scheme and advocating disposal of material they claim cannot be disposed of.

The WNN piece quotes the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change as saying that the French MOX plant near Avignon has proven commercially successful, whereas the British one at Sellafield has not. As Areva, which operates the French MOX plant (called MELOX), is also a partner in Sellafield Inc.’s parent company, does this mean a new UK MOX plant might be based on a French design? The Rokkasho-Mura complex in Japan incorporates reprocessing technology similar to that at Areva’s La Hague facility in Normandy; a MOX plant similar to MELOX is also under construction at the site. A UK complex incorporating French technology would be a coup for Areva, and would cement its predominance in international nuclear fuel recycling.

It would also signal further evidence that the recycling train is leaving the station. I mentioned in “The Doomsday Industry” that the US, which used to be the world leader both in nuclear technology and in commercial nuclear diplomacy, has been watching the rear end of that train recede into the distance ever since the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) met its demise in the last two years of the Bush administration.

Areva’s proposal to build a civilian reprocessing and MOX facility in the US appears to have been submerged for now, possibly a casualty of the fight over GNEP. A MOX plant in the UK would be a pretty decent consolation prize for Areva, and would be another example of recycling outside of the US.

The anti-recycling campaign is being planned as I write this. So those following the plutonium consultations in the UK should gird themselves for an unhealthy dose of hysterical anti-nuclear nonsense. A brilliant Canadian blogger, observing the manufactured uproar over the Bruce Power steam generator recycling plan, describes those opposing that plan as

… the usual confederacy of motley twits namely NGOs sounding off to ensure continued funding from their misguided supporters, self-promoting activists of all stripes and chronic protesters who just enjoy demonstrating as a sport.
Nuclear Reactors for Canada, February 13 2011

The UK plutonium consultations will feature a lot of input from those types. However, they will also feature other, more sophisticated opposition. In their efforts to oppose recycling, British anti-nukes can expect a lot of help—in the form of expert reports, in-person presentations to decision makers, and media interviews—from the established mainstream anti-proliferation industry in the US.

Expect the rhetoric employed in this campaign to echo the following points, taken directly from a 2005 report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The report is dressed up as an objective look at the implications of civilian plutonium recycling in Japan, and specifically the Rokkasho-Mura complex. But as you’ll see, it is pretty far from objective.

  • Proliferation Example. It will be increasingly difficult to convince nations such as Iran and others that they should not build reprocessing facilities if Japan opens this plant. Many proliferation experts believe that no weapon usable materials should be involved in civil applications in any form. Efforts to reform the international nuclear fuel cycle to prevent national ownership of nuclear production facilities would also be undermined by Rokkasho’s operation.
  • Proliferation Risk. Though it is highly unlikely that Japan would consider building nuclear weapons today, that possibility cannot be ruled out permanently. Having a large amount of plutonium available and plutonium reprocessing capabilities and uranium enrichment facilities (also part of the Rokkasho site) would make if far easier for Japan to acquire nuclear weapons if it decided to do so.
  • Terrorism Risk. The IAEA requires that MOX be safeguarded at the same level as nuclear weapon material, and for good reason. The plutonium-uranium mixture can be re-separated into weapon usable plutonium. An organized, dedicated terrorist or criminal group might be able to overwhelm plant security and seize enough material for dozens of nuclear weapons.
  • Environmental Damage. Everything facility [sic] at Rokkossah-Mura is dangerous to the environment and requires elaborate and expensive measures to control pollution and nuclear accidents. Greenpeace Japan points out, for example, that just one part of the operation–the venting of radioactive gases released during reprocessing–will make the plant the largest source of Krypton-85 in the world. The radioactive gas released will fairly quickly spread around the world.
    —“Producing Plutonium at Rokkasho-mura,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Forget about the sloppy editing for a minute, and just focus on the substance. The first two points are another example of the Floodgates Hypothesis. Besides, “[e]fforts to reform the international nuclear fuel cycle to prevent national ownership of nuclear production facilities” would have had no effect on India or North Korea or Pakistan—these countries pursued these activities in secret.

And the last two points, apparently thrown in to raise the FUD about nuclear to a dull roar, betray the real purpose of the Carnegie report: to oppose anything with the word “nuclear” in front of it. Anybody who quotes Greenpeace in a report on nuclear energy basically forfeits his right to claim objectivity.

Terrorists might be able to defeat plant security and get their hands on Rokkasho’s plutonium, but what then? Like I said in “Lock and Burn,” I guess they spirit the stuff down the highway to their secret reprocessing plant. This is Austin Powers.

British anti-nukes will surely use some or all of the Carnegie points in order to oppose plutonium recycling in favour of permanent disposal, which they also claim is not a solution. So what exactly is their position? A famous British rocker once said “I don’t know what I want, but I know how to get it.” Well, he only said it. The anti-nukes live it. And they mean it, man.

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