Waste Management

UK / ‘No Easy Options’ For Disposal Of Plutonium Stockpile, Says Report

By David Dalton
6 September 2023

One possibility is to use it as fuel for existing or future thermal nuclear reactors

‘No Easy Options’ For Disposal Of Plutonium Stockpile, Says Report
Plutonium being stored at the Sellafield site in northwest England. Courtesy NDA.

There are no easy options when it comes to the “unavoidably complex” task of managing the UK’s plutonium stockpile, but more research, development and innovation is needed to underpin any decision, a report says.

The report, prepared by the Dalton Nuclear Institute at Manchester University, calls for a national dialogue led by “trusted voices” and based on a clear view of the government’s thinking of the role, if any, plutonium might play in meeting future UK energy needs.

The stockpile could be used as fuel for existing or future thermal reactors. It could also be combined with the UK’s 100,000 tonne supply of depleted, natural and low-enriched uranium to fuel new fast reactors, which has the potential to power the UK for centuries. Both options could lead to the reduction of the UK’s nuclear legacy burden.

Another option is to dispose of the stockpile in the planned UK deep geological repository.

Professor Clint Sharrad, acting director of the Dalton Nuclear Institute, said while this all sounds promising, successfully delivering such outcomes would take time, money, organisation, and commitment.

The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, a government body, is in the process of repackaging the plutonium stocks, stored at Sellafield in northwest England, into more robust containment.

“Being wary of the current global political and economic climate, it may be that extracting the energy from UK plutonium in the not-too-distant future becomes unnecessarily expensive and political barriers may be too difficult to overcome,” Prof Sharrad said.

“Therefore, it might be simpler and cheaper to consider it a waste material alongside the other legacies from the nuclear industry, and safely dispose of it.”

The stockpile originates from reprocessing spent fuel from the UK’s reactor fleets, plus some material derived from outside the UK.

The report says the UK is considered a world leader in nuclear with a well-established nuclear industry since the 1950s. This offers many positives by contributing to improved energy security and delivering net zero, but does present challenges in regards to nuclear legacy management.

Pen Use this content