Reprocessing

Background - 27 June, 2006
Every uranium-fuelled nuclear reactor creates plutonium during routine operation. Every 12-18 months the reactor is shut down, and one quarter of the fuel is discharged, and fresh fuel loaded. The so-called spent fuel consists of plutonium (around 1 percent), uranium (around 96 percent) and so called fission products (highly radioactive waste).

The Sellafield nuclear complex where reprocessing takes place.

Originally developed for chemically extracting the plutonium for use in nuclear weapons, reprocessing facilities were constructed in the US, Soviet Union, the UK and France. During the 1950's and 1960's nuclear power advocates in these countries and others promoted the concept of using plutonium as a fuel for nuclear reactors, with the aim of providing an unlimited source of energy. The concept of the breeder reactor was developed, whereby plutonium would be produced in the reactor, reprocessed and then used as fuel.

However, fast breeder reactor programs were far more limited than planned due to cost, technical problems, and the inherent hazards of the technology. At the same time, the predominant reactor design, based around the US Light Water Reactor, was being built in ever increasing numbers, producing significant amounts of nuclear waste in the form of spent fuel.

Commercial Reprocessing

Opposition to waste in the locality of these reactors, as well as the planned (but distant) plutonium economy led to the signing of commercial reprocessing contracts between nuclear reactor operators and reprocessing companies. While commercial reprocessing was abandoned in the US during the 1970's and early 1980's, new reprocessing plants were constructed in France and the UK. Thousands of tonnes of spent fuel were transported by sea and rail to the French La Hague site operated byCogema and to the Sellafield site inthe UK operated by British Nuclear Fuels (now British Nuclear Group - Sellafield) from the 1970's to the present.

Reprocessing, which chemically separates the plutonium and uranium from high level nuclear waste, is a hazardous process, significantly increasing the total volume of nuclear waste as well as producing pure plutonium - directly usable as nuclear weapons material.

As a consequence of reprocessing, energy utilities such as Eon, RWE, Tokyo and Kansai Electric, British Energy, EDF, Electrabel, Vattenfal and many others have acquired large stocks of plutonium, separate duranium and nuclear waste (low, intermediate and high level). Despite plans to utilitise the plutonium and uranium, only a tiny fraction of this material has been used. Most remain in stores at the reprocessing sites or, in the case of large amounts of reprocessed uranium, shipped to Russia.

Reprocessing means dumping

No matter from which angle you look at reprocessing it is illogical. It's expensive, produces useless materials, releases vast quantities of waste into the environment, increases the total volume of waste, and increases nuclear proliferation risks.

Reprocessing is another name for nuclear waste dumping and the vast majority of the waste exported to reprocessing sites in France, UK and Russia will remain there forever.

One of the most controversial issues with reprocessing facilities is their daily discharge of huge quantities of radioactive liquid waste into the sea and radioactive discharges into the air. The Sellafield and LaHague facilities are the biggest source of radioactive pollution in Europe. The radioactive contamination in the sea can be traced as far as the Arctic and eastern Canada.

In addition to raising general background levels of radiation, marine life in particular algae, plankton, and crustacean's including lobsters have absorbed significant amounts of radionuclides, in many cases exceeding safety levels set for seafood after a nuclear accident. There is an increase in the rate of childhood leukaemia and other radiation linked diseases in the vicinity of both Sellafield and La Hague.

Sellafield:

is a nuclear complex situated on the coast of north-west England. Originally named Windscale with the purpose of producing plutonium for the British nuclear weapons program, it is now predominantly a commercial site with reprocessing facilities, fuel fabrication and other installations. It has one of the highest concentrations of radioactive waste on theplanet, a disastrous safety record with hundreds of accidents involving the release of radioactive substances into the environment and their radiation of workers.

The reprocessing plants at Sellafield discharge some 8 million litres of nuclear waste into the sea each day. The Irish Sea is one of the most radioactively contaminated seas in the world. In the vicinity of the complex, groundwater, estuaries and soil are contaminated, with levels in the area around Sellafield exceeding contamination inside the Chernobyl exclusion zone. Compared to the British average, there has been a ten-fold increase of childhood leukaemia around Sellafield. Plutonium dust has been found in the houses of residents living along the Irish Sea coast.

La Hague:

is a French nuclear reprocessing complex operated by the government-owned Compagnie Générale des Matières Nucléaires (Cogema) and is situated on the tip of the Cotentin Peninsula in Normandy, France. It is the largest importer of foreign spent fuel in the world. Its client countries are Germany, Japan, Belgium, the Netherlands and Switzerland, as well as French spent fuel.

Each year hundreds of millions of litres of radioactive waste are pumped into the English Channel from La Hague. The contamination spreads northwards along the North Sea coasts of Europe and can be measured in Nordic and even Arctic waters. The leukaemia risk for children living near the plant is three times higher than the French average. Cogema is notorious for being extremely secretive about discharge levels and accidents.

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