Japanese earthquake causes economic blow for Copeland
A natural disaster on the other side of the world had dire economic consequences for West Cumbria this week, as the NDA announced that because of the halt to Japanese demand for reprocessing while their nuclear power plants are offline, the existing Sellafield Mox Plant (SMP) will be closed.
Tony Fountain, CEO of the Nuclear Decomissioning Authority, said that
“The reason for this [closure] is directly related to the tragic events in Japan following the tsunami and its ongoing impact on the power markets.
“As a consequence we no longer have a customer for this facility, or funding.”
An NDA statement said: “The NDA board has assessed the changed commercial risk profile for SMP arising from potential delays following the earthquake in Japan and subsequent events. It has concluded that, in order to ensure that the UK taxpayer does not carry a future financial burden from SMP, the only reasonable course of action is to close SMP at the earliest practical opportunity. The decision is no reflection on the SMP workforce, which has continued to improve operating performance.”
SMP deals only with plutonium that has been reprocessed at Thorp. It produces Mox fuel from this plutonium. One tonne of plutonium, when recycled as Mox fuel, can create more energy than two million tonnes of coal.
At the time of the earthquake, Japan was SMP's only customer. Despite that, its medium-term future appeared bright after the NDA and 10 Japanese utilities agreed in 2010 on a three-year plan to refurbish SMP. But the Japanese earthquake in March and the problems at Fukushima upset all the calculations.
This does not necessarily mean that there is no chance of the proposed new MOX plant going ahead: Unlike the existing plant, which supplies overseas customers, now exclusively Japan, the new facility would provide fuel for a new generation of British nuclear power stations such as the one planned for Sellafield.
As Cumbria county council leader Eddie Martin put it, “The Government must surely step in to ensure that nuclear skills and jobs are retained in west Cumbria for the longer-term future of the industry and for the regeneration of Cumbria as a whole. The most effective way of doing this is for the Government to immediately confirm it will commission and build a new Sellafield Mox plant as soon as possible – not least because other countries, such as Russia, are building Mox plants and the commercial opportunities may well bypass us if we are not quick off the mark.”