Campaign Against Depleted Uranium

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Capenhurst – where ‘enrichment’ means a toxic cost for future generations

While our focus at CADU is on the use of DU in armaments, it is worth every now and again looking at the bigger picture, and the way DU fits into the nuclear industry – an industry that is supposedly undergoing a ‘renaissance’. Leaving aside the vision of the Mona Lisa in a radiation suit that this language conjures up, let us remind ourselves how it was that DU ended up in weapons in the first place.

DU was not selected by accident, or simply because of the properties which make it so suited to piercing tank armour. As the waste product of the first phase in manufacturing nuclear fuel, DU is plentiful and cheap, reducing the costs for arms manufacturers. A win-win situation for those involved, because the ‘externalities’ - human and environmental costs, are passed onto others. This is typical of the nuclear industry, where the costs of clean-up, decommissioning and waste disposal usually fall on wider society, and the long half-lives of nuclear waste defers these costs to future generations.

CADU does not believe that Capenhurst sends DU to be manufactured into weaponry (the UK’s weapons were made from US DU). However, a new generation of nuclear power stations will militate against a ban on DU weapons by undermining concerns over the impact of low level radiation. Furthermore, increasing stockpiles of DU will also encourage the devlopment of other civilian and military applications for the waste.

Uranium enrichment began in Capenhurst in 1952 as an integral part of Britain’s nuclear weapons programme. The only way to manufacture plutonium for the weapons was through the fission of uranium in a nuclear reactor, and the expansion of the programme required a larger supply of enriched uranium. Today most of the site is being decommissioned under the auspices of British Nuclear Group Sellafield Ltd. (BNGSL - previously BNFL). BNGSL is a publicly owned entity which became bankrupt due to the huge costs of decommissioning and waste disposal, and was restructured by the Government in 2004. The current enrichment business at Capenhurst is run by Urenco: a British, Dutch and German consortium, in which BNGSL own a 1/3 stake.

As the enrichment process produces about seven times more depleted uranium than the enriched uranium, the enrichment plant produces a lot of DU, in the form of uranium hexafluoride - a material so dangerous that the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has capped the volume that can be stored on the Urenco site. Because of this limit Urenco exports excess hex to Russia, in violation of Russian law, according to Greenpeace.

The future plans for the site are that the BNGSL site will be refurbished and hex from Chapelcross and Sellafield will be converted to a more stable oxide form and 60,000 tonnes of it will be stored until 2150. Urenco plan to continue enrichment until 2035, when their DU will probably be converted in the BNGSL plant and stored until 2120.

Both BNGSL and Urenco are keen to portray their work as environmentally benign. But in reality, both plants are legally allowed to discharge radioactive material into the air through vents and an incinerator chimney. They are also allowed to dump it in a municipal landfill site and into a stream that runs from the site through the nearby town of Ellesmere Port. Traces of radioactivity are routinely found in grasses and cow pats on nearby farms, and direct radiation levels from the site are significant.

Behind the plans to store DU in such large quantities until the middle of the 22nd century is an accounting trick that describes what is basically nuclear waste as a ‘zero-value asset’. This means that while at present it is a financial liability, a future increase in the price of uranium might make it financially viable to re-enrich the DU, or reactors which can utilise U238 as fuel may become available. It is anybody’s guess how likely these theoretical possibilities are, but while the costs for the plans are huge (over £2bn for the BNGSL site), the cost of disposing of the DU and decommissiong the storage facility is not counted on the balance sheet. Furthermore, an accounting practice called ‘discounting’ (costs which are deferred to some point in the future are counted as lower than their actual value) is used to further reduce the costs to the taxpayer which appear on paper.

The commercial viability of the plan to store the DU on the Urenco site depends upon most of the site being cleaned up and decommissioned by 2040, and upon non-nuclear commercial activities running alongside the storage.

According to their most recent report on Urenco the HSE fears the site may be hiding unknown historical contamination, throwing these calculations out and rendering Urenco unable to pay for storage, security and the safe disposal of the waste. They also stated that Urenco had not set aside separate cash for this purpose, in contravention of Government policy.

A quick glance at the history of the nuclear industry in the UK suggests that at some point the taxpayer could have to step in and pay for the cleanup. While the nuclear industry keeps generating tonnes of DU as a by-product, there will always be people on the lookout for a way to turn this waste into a ‘useful’ material, and if the UK is set to commission a new generation of nuclear power stations, these problems can only grow.

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Page last updated: November 6, 2008