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Royal Society calls for MOX plant to tackle plutonium waste

The UK should build a new plant to recycle its plutonium stockpile into mixed-oxide fuel, says a report by the Royal Society.

The report, published on 13 October, comes just over a month after the announcement that the UK’s MOX plant at Sellafield in Cumbria will close.

The report says that a MOX plant using new-generation thermal light-water reactors is the only technically proven and commercially viable technology that the UK could use to tackle its plutonium stockpile—which is the largest in the world at 112 tonnes.

It says that the large stockpile poses a “serious security risk” and undermines the UK’s credibility in non-proliferation debates.

“The government needs to seriously consider whether we wish to close off our future reprocessing options, which we stand to lose by default under the government’s current assumptions,” said Roger Cashmore, head of the Atomic Energy Authority and chairman of the Royal Society working group that compiled the report.

The report says that while several countries in the world are considering expanding their nuclear-power programmes in a “global nuclear renaissance”, the UK’s role in nuclear development has been declining for several decades.

To reverse this trend, it says, the government needs to set out its long-term ambitions for nuclear power and boost support for research infrastructure, including a long-term R&D roadmap.

It could also set up a Civil Nuclear Power Council—made up of representatives from government, agencies and industry—to be based in the Department for Energy and Climate Change.

In addition, it says, it should be easier to share information between academia, government and industry, as well collaborating with national and international partners.

A way towards such a goal could be for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to establish a Non-Proliferation and Nuclear Security Network chaired by the FCO’s chief scientific adviser.

The report estimates that there could be up to 10 new nuclear countries by 2030. Likely candidates include Egypt, Indonesia, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Lithuania, Malaysia, Nigeria, Philippines, Poland and Saudi Arabia.

The report recommends that all countries with nuclear weapons should separate their civil and military nuclear programmes. They should place their civil nuclear programmes under international safeguards run by the International Atomic Energy Agency to avoid the use of spent fuel for weapons.

“Fukushima has shown that we cannot be complacent about the safety of nuclear power. However, the same principle must apply to nuclear security and non-proliferation. Both governments and the nuclear industry need to seriously reassess their responsibilities in these areas,” added Cashmore in a statement.