Today the UK’s Nuclear Decommissioning Authority announced the closure of the Mixed Oxide fuel fabrication facility at Sellafield. “The reason for this is directly related to the tragic events in Japan and its ongoing impact on the power markets,” Tony Fountain, the decommissioning authority’s CEO, said in a prepared statement.
Mixed Oxide, or MOX, fuel blends conventional uranium fuel with recycled plutonium and uranium. It is trumpeted by nuclear advocates as a way to make the nuclear fuel cycle more efficient while reducing radioactive waste. It is also a way to dispose of bomb-grade plutonium that was produced during the Cold War.
But all this comes at a price. Making MOX is a complex and expensive process. The UK alone has spent around £1.5 billion on its MOX plant since it was commissioned in the mid-90s. In that time, it hasn’t done very much, in part because the plant’s facilities weren’t up to scratch, but also because MOX fuel just didn’t have a market.
That was beginning to turn around in recent years. In 2009, the NDA put forward a plan that would improve the plant’s production processes, and last spring, it found a client: the Japanese. Under an agreement, Japan’s ten utilities agreed to a framework under which the plant at Sellafield would supply MOX to Japan’s reactors.
All that has changed following the nuclear meltdown at Fukushima Daiichi. With just 17 of 54 nuclear plants operating, and the future of nuclear in the country uncertain, Japan no longer needs that recycled fuel. And without its only client, the MOX plant doesn’t have much of a reason to continue operating. About 600 jobs are expected to be lost.
Globally, the shutdown leaves just one other commercial MOX facility operating globally: the French MELOX plant located in Gard.
Credit: Sellafield Ltd.