After 70 years of producing plutonium in reprocessing works the United Kingdom, now with 140 tonnes of it, the largest stockpile in the world, finds it has no use for the metal – and needs to spend £4.5 billion (US$6bn) just to keep it safe. Having already spent at least that much since the 1950s employing thousands of workers at the Sellafield plant in north-west England to refine the plutonium, the British government has now been told this was a useless endeavour, producing fissile material which, as a security risk, is a burden for future generations. To cope with the problem the government has now authorised the building of new plants to refine, repackage and store the plutonium for another 140 years, in the hope that some time in the future someone will find a use for it. Plutonium was once described as the most valuable substance in the world – because with seven kilograms a nation could make a devastating nuclear bomb and become a superpower. plutonium is now a liability, costing more than £300 million a ton to make safe and store. It will be permanently guarded by a special armed police force for the next 140 years to prevent terrorists getting access to it – the additional cost of this 24-hour surveillance being kept secret because it is “a matter of national security.” Some of the plutonium has been stored for so long that it already needs what is called “emergency repackaging” to keep it safe. Some of it decays into a more radioactive substance, americium-241, which remains a danger for another 300 years. To avoid immediate danger to workers this plutonium will have to be re-packaged again to meet the standard required for it to enter a new store, so far unbuilt. Rachel Western, a Friends of the Earth researcher, who obtained a Ph.D studying decision-making in nuclear waste management, said: “It is shocking that after half a century of production of plutonium at Sellafield they have discovered how dangerous it is, so that we are suddenly faced with emergency action.” One of the extraordinary aspects of this history is that successive governments, both Conservative and Labour, have been warned repeatedly by scientists, engineers and environment groups that the plutonium is a liability, not an asset. Despite that, in the 1990s (having already built up a vast stock of plutonium) ministers authorised the new reprocessing works to begin operations. After a life of 20 years this reprocessing plant, known as Thorp (the Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant), shut down in 2018, and another that has been working since the 1950s is due to close in 2021 – in the meantime still turning out more plutonium that has no end use.
Climate News Network 3rd Sept 2020 read more »