Thursday, 19 September 2013

Commencing earlier this year, cargoes of radioactive materials are being transported from Dounreay to Sellafield by train. These consignments will contain materials suitable for being used in the production of nuclear weapons.  Armed guards accompany each movement (as happened in the 1980s).   A total of about 50 journeys are proposed.  For security reasons the times of the trains are being kept secret.  Whilst armed guards may be all that would have been appropriate in the 1980s, now there are far bigger dangers.  Whilst in the past, a tree felled across the rail track causing a derailment might have been considered the biggest danger, nowadays there is the threat of explosives being placed on the line which could have far more disastrous consequences.   If such a thing were to happen, whilst a nuclear explosion would not of course occur, if the sabotage happened in a densely populated area, there is a strong likelihood of widespread radioactive contamination.

The materials concerned are those left over from the Dounreay Fast Breeder Reactor which closed in 1977.  The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority is anxious to get these to Cumbria as soon as possible, as the Magnox reprocessing plant there is due to close in 2016/2017.  There are still 32 tonnes of "breeder materials" stuck inside the Dounreay reactor, which cannot be accessed until the last of the Sodium Coolant is extracted.   This was planned to have been done by September 2002 yet here we are now with 32 tonnes still stuck inside the reactor containing significant quantities of plutonium. All in all there are 109 tonnes of fuel still at Dounreay.

Some reprocessing of spent fuel was done in the past at Dounreay and transported to Sellafield from Scrabster harbour in a vessel called the "Kingsnorth Fisher".  The plutonium extracted was dissolved in acid and shipped in the form of plutonium nitrate, which was described in a Royal Commission safety report as "an exceedingly dangerous form in which to transport plutonium".  On one journey the Kingsnorth Fisher was struck by a storm in the Minches and suffered structural damage.  Had the vessel foundered the consequences would have been unthinkable.

The reprocessing planned will of course cause further pollution of the Irish Sea and disperse radioactivity throughout the environment.   

Why may we ask is reprocessing of spent fuel to extract plutonium still being done, considering that there are huge amounts of plutonium already around which will never be used for any purpose and could simply to classed as waste?

The answer to the question is a simple one.   If it is reclassified as waste, it will become a liability on the Treasury's books.

Some useful reference links:

(1)   NFLA Scotland'sResponse to the Dounreay Site End State Consultation,- January 2007