Statewatch article: RefNo# 2344
UK: International row over waste to Dounreay
Statewatch bulletin, vol 8 no 2
A year ago the US Department of Energy said the Dounreay nuclear complex in Scotland was a proliferation threat because of its trade in weapons-grade highly-enriched uranium (HEU). Now, the plant and the UK are being hailed as non-proliferation heroes because of the agreement to take 4.3kg of unirradiated and 0.8kg of irradiated HEU fuel from the Georgian Institute of Physics research reactor outside Tbilisi.

This is only one of the many ironies in an affair which has highlighted a vital international issue - and caused argument and controversy in both political and environmental circles in the UK and internationally. The HEU from Georgia arrived in Scotland on a US aircraft early on Friday 24 April and was taken from RAF Kinloss to Dounreay by road.

The UK authorities say the unirradiated fuel may be converted for medical purposes - although Scotland Against nuclear Dumping (SAND) has argued that if this is technically feasible it should first be down-blended to non-weapons-grade low-enriched uranium. Suggestions that the fuel will not, and cannot be used for the medical purposes claimed by the Government have been angrily denied by Ministers. However a number of nuclear and medical experts have said that while HEU could be used to produce medical isotopes it would be extremely difficult and complicated - and pointless as there were plentiful supplies of other suitable material already available.

Dounreay is hoping the Georgia fuel will improve its standing in Government circles and increase support for its reprocessing work. Doubts have also been raised whether Dounreay has regulatory permission to process the unirradiated Georgian HEU.
Dounreay is pinning its hopes on the plant re-opening so it can bid for 1,100 spent HEU fuel elements from Australia - and there remains the possibility of more shipments from former-Soviet Union territories, although the Government at present is still saying the Georgia fuel was a "one-off" shipment which required relaxation of waste laws and did not create a precedent.

No reprocessing plant open

The future of the five fuel rods which have 0.8kgs of irradiated HEU is less certain. Dounreay's reprocessing plants are presently closed and cannot re-open until the regulatory authorities have completed a full safety review and any necessary improvement work carried out. It is possible the plants will not re-open if the repair costs are too high. No reprocessing work has been carried out at Dounreay for about 18 months. The main mixed oxide plant is closed after a leak and needs expensive repair work which has not yet been approved, while the HEU plant has had no work - and the economics of re-opening it for just the five Georgia rods must be debatable.

If the five rods are reprocessed, the resulting intermediate-level waste (ILL) will fill two waste drums at the plant - where over 14,000 ILL drums are already in store. A small amount of radioactive waste will be discharged into the sea and atmosphere. The HEU recovered by reprocessing will probably be used to make new fuel - the very trade the US Administration objects to.

There has been concern over the HEU at the Tbilisi reactor for several years. Russia was on the point of accepting the fuel, in return for ?50,000, but pulled-out of the deal and the US has funded the safety work already carried out at the plant. America first raised the issue with the UK in August 1997. France had rejected the fuel, its laws prevent importing nuclear waste except fuel which it provided in the first place. America has similar laws and would also have had to carry out a full environmental impact assessment, with public consultation, before the fuel could have been allowed into the USA. The UK has no such requirements - a point raised by several environmental groups.

UK restrictions relaxed

However, the UK Government has had to agree special dispensation from two legal regulations or restrictions to allow the

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