British plutonium samples shipped to France

28 November 2019

A shipment of samples of plutonium oxide is en route from the UK to a laboratory at Orano's Melox plant in southern France. The samples will be used to determine if the plutonium can be used in the production of mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel.

The shipment of samples starts its journey by road from Cherbourg (Image: Orano)

The samples, from an inventory stored at the UK's Sellafield site, arrived by ship on 26 November at the port of Cherbourg in northern France. From there, they are being transported by road to the Melox plant. The shipment is taking place under an agreement between the UK's Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) and Orano to provide the NDA with technical expertise on the option of recycling the plutonium stockpiled at Sellafield.

Orano noted the samples - comprising a few hundred grams of plutonium oxide - are conditioned in a package specifically designed to ensure the containment and permit safe transport of the material. These packages have been approved by both the UK's Office for Nuclear Regulation and France's Autorité de Sûreté Nucléaire.

The samples are to be used in the testing line set up at the laboratory on the Melox plant site to conduct analysis and verify the feasibility of converting the UK plutonium oxide into MOX fuel pellets. "This could then be recycled through the plant's industrial process and used to produce fuel to supply electricity to the European market," Orano said.

About 5% of the content of MOX fuel is plutonium recovered by reprocessing nuclear fuel that has already been used in power-generating reactors. Recycling the material in this way increases the energy it produces by 12%. If unfissioned uranium is also recovered and reused the figure increases to 22%. The process also allows the separation of the most highly radioactive fission products, meaning the volume of the most dangerous wastes is reduced by over 60%.

Reprocessing operations ended in November 2018 at the Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant (Thorp) at the Sellafield site in the UK after 24 years. Built at a cost of GBP1.8 billion (USD2.3 billion), the Thorp facility opened in 1994 and has since processed 9331 tonnes of used nuclear fuel from 30 customers in nine countries around the world. It was one of only two commercial nuclear fuel reprocessing plants in the world, the other being Orano's La Hague plant in France.

Researched and written by World Nuclear News