Reprocessing involves dissolving spent nuclear fuel in acid and separating the unused uranium (about 96% of the mass), plutonium (1%) and high level wastes (3%). Most commercial reprocessing takes place in the UK (Sellafield) and France (La Hague). There are smaller plants in India, Russia and Japan. Japan plans to begin large-scale reprocessing at the Rokkasho plant. (In addition, a number of countries have military reprocessing plants.)

Reprocessing is arguably the most dangerous and dirty phase of the nuclear fuel chain. Reprocessing generates large waste streams with no management solution and it separates weapons-useable plutonium from spent fuel.

Proponents of reprocessing give the following four justifications:

1. Reducing the volume and facilitating the management of high level radioactive waste.
However reprocessing does nothing to reduce radioactivity or toxicity, and the overall waste volume, including low and intermediate level waste, is increased by reprocessing. Steve Kidd from the World Nuclear Association states: “It is true that the current Purex reprocessing technology (used at Sellafield and La Hague) is less than satisfactory. Environmentally dirty, it produces significant quantities of lower level wastes.”

2. ‘Recycling’ uranium to reduce reliance on natural reserves.
However, only an improbably large expansion of nuclear power would result in any problems with uranium supply this century. A very large majority of the uranium separated from spent fuel at reprocessing plants is not reused, but is stockpiled. Uranium from reprocessing is used only in France and Russia and accounts for only 1% of global uranium usage. It contains isotopes such as uranium-232 which complicate its use as a reactor fuel.

3. Separating plutonium for use as nuclear fuel.
However there is very little demand for plutonium as a nuclear fuel. It is used in ‘MOX’ reactor fuel (mixed uranium-plutonium oxide), which accounts for 2−5% of worldwide nuclear fuel, and in a small number of fast neutron reactors.

4. Using plutonium as a fuel so that it can no longer be used in nuclear weapons.
However, reactors which can use plutonium as fuel can produce more plutonium than they consume. Moreover, since there is so little demand for plutonium as a reactor fuel, stockpiles of separated plutonium continually grow and now amount to over about 250 tonnes (enough for 25,000 nuclear weapons) with an annual increase of about five tonnes. Reprocessing has clearly worsened rather than reduced proliferation risks. Addressing the problem of growing stockpiles of separated plutonium could hardly be simpler – it only requires that reprocessing be slowed, suspended, or stopped altogether. That could hardly be simpler – but commercial, political and perhaps military imperatives trump common sense.

The main reason reprocessing proceeds is that reprocessing plants act as long-term, de facto storage facilities for spent nuclear fuel. Unfortunately this sets up a series of events which has been likened to the old woman who swallowed a fly – every solution is worse than the problem it was supposed to solve:

  • The perceived need to do something about growing spent fuel stockpiles at reactor sites (not least to maintain or obtain reactor operating licences), coupled with the lack of repositories for permanent disposal, encourages nuclear utilities to send spent fuel to commercial reprocessing plants, which act as long-term, de facto storage sites.
  • Eventually the spent fuel must be reprocessed, which brings with it serious proliferation, public health and environmental risks.
  • Reprocessing has led to a large and growing stockpile of separated plutonium, which is an unacceptable and unnecessary proliferation risk.
  • Reprocessing creates the ‘need’ to develop mixed uranium-plutonium fuel (MOX) or fast neutron reactors to make use of the plutonium separated by reprocessing.
  • All of the above necessitates a global pattern of transportation of spent fuel, high level waste, separated plutonium and MOX, with the attendant risks of accidents, terrorist strikes and theft leading to the production of nuclear weapons.

None of this is logical or justifiable on non-proliferation, environmental, public health or economic grounds but it suits the short-term political and commercial objectives of those involved.

Australian governments have never once invoked their right to prevent reprocessing of spent fuel produced from Australian uranium, even when it leads to the stockpiling of separated plutonium as in Japan and some European countries.

West Valley, NY: case study in reprocessing’s environmental devastation

December 2009

West Valley, New York is the only site in the U.S. to ever carry out commercial radioactive waste reprocessing. In six short years of operation, from 1966-1972, it massively contaminated its surrounding environment. A comprehensive 2008 report, “The Real Costs of Cleaning Up Nuclear Wastes: A Full Cost Accounting of Cleanup Options for the West Valley Nuclear Waste Site,” has documented that protecting the Great Lakes downstream will cost a whopping $10-27 BILLION! Additional background information on the history and current status of West Valley can be found at the website of Nuclear Information and Resource Service.

MOX plutonium ships heading to Japan through Pacific: July-September 1999

Jim Green, August 1999

A shipment of mixed plutonium/uranium oxide (MOX) nuclear reactor fuel from Europe to Japan poses dangerous weapons proliferation, environmental and public health risks.

There have been several shipments of high-level radioactive waste, and one shipment of plutonium, from Europe to Japan in the 1990s. However the current shipment is the first transfer of MOX and it could be followed by as many as 80 MOX shipments over the next decade unless international opposition stops the trade.

An expanded MOX trade will spread weapons-useable plutonium more widely than ever before and raise tensions in the politically volatile north-east Asian region. The shipment currently travelling to Japan contains enough plutonium for about 60 nuclear weapons. Greenpeace predicts that as many as 40 tonnes of plutonium could be transferred to Japan over the next decade, enough for several thousand weapons.

The nuclear industry sometimes claims that extracting plutonium from MOX is technically complicated. However the US Department of Energy said in 1997 that “fresh MOX fuel remains a material in the most sensitive category because plutonium suitable for use in weapons could be separated from it relatively easily.” Similar statements have been made by the UK Environment Agency and the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The safety of the shipment has been seriously jeopardised by cost-cutting and secrecy. Problems include inadequate design, testing and construction of the transport containers, insufficient emergency planning, and inadequate liability coverage. The MOX will be used to fuel Japanese reactors which were not designed to handle this fuel, thus decreasing safety margins.

The MOX is being transported on two ships which left French and British ports between July 19 and July 22. They are expected to arrive in Japan in mid September. The ships will cross the Indian Ocean then pass through the Tasman Sea. The route was announced by Japanese, French, and British officials only after an international controversy. Specific details regarding the route have not been provided, nor is there a guarantee that the ships will not pass through waters under the jurisdiction of en-route nations.

The New Zealand and Irish governments have expressed opposition to the shipment because of safety and security concerns. Twenty five countries in the Caribbean region protested against the MOX shipment, which may be the reason the current shipment is not passing through the Panama Canal. The South African government says that it does not want the ships passing through its territorial waters.

The growing controversy mirrors the experience of 1992, when over 50 countries protested against a plutonium shipment from France to Japan.

Plutonium economy.

Current efforts to expand the use of MOX represent the latest attempt of the nuclear industry to establish a civil plutonium economy. Plutonium is virtually non-existent in nature but is produced in all nuclear reactors. Several countries operate reprocessing plants which separate plutonium, uranium and waste from spent reactor fuel. Historically the main use for plutonium has been nuclear weapons construction, and the main purpose of reprocessing has been to separate plutonium for weapons.

Parallel plans were developed to use plutonium (and thus reprocessing plants) for nuclear power. There was great hope that “fast breeder” power reactors – which use plutonium as fuel and produce more plutonium than they consume – would become widespread. This would justify the expansion of the reprocessing industry, thus generating profits and also supplying plutonium for weapons if necessary.

Surplus plutonium produced in fast breeders could be mixed with uranium and used as MOX fuel, thus addressing another concern in the post-war decades – that uranium supplies could dry up. Thanks to the plutonium economy, nuclear power would be too cheap to meter and everyone would live happily ever after.

However, fast breeder programs have been cancelled, or are in grave danger, in every country in which they have been pursued including Japan, the US, France, Germany, former Soviet states, the UK and France.

With the failure of fast breeder programs, the rationale for reprocessing spent reactor fuel has become very dubious. It makes no sense to reprocess spent fuel simply to extract (unused) uranium, because fresh uranium can be obtained more cheaply.

The failure of fast breeder programs should have signalled an end to the plutonium economy. But commercial, political and military interests have been established which depend on the survival and expansion of a plutonium fuel cycle. Thus the use of MOX in conventional power reactors was trumpeted.

MOX makes little economic sense. According to a report in The Economist (June 1993), MOX would be more expensive than uranium fuel even if the plutonium was free. A 1998 report by the US-based Nuclear Control Institute says that uranium fuel is 4-8 times cheaper than MOX.

However there are some short-term interests driving the current expansion of MOX trade, as well as a strong ideological factor – keeping alive the fading dream of a plutonium economy.

Consolidating a MOX fuel cycle will prop up the European reprocessing and MOX production industries. Large investments have been made in these industries in France, the UK and Belgium over the past decade. Reprocessing plants at Sellafield (Britain) and La Hague (France) are the biggest plutonium producers on the planet. Combined, they have over 100 tonnes of plutonium in storage. Both plants are government owned, and the establishment of MOX trade is of considerable importance to the British and French governments.

Currently, only a very small percentage of nuclear power reactors around the world use MOX fuel, with most using low-enriched uranium fuel which cannot easily be transformed into a weapons-useable form. Countries using MOX for at least some of their reactors include Belgium, Germany, and Switzerland. The future demand of MOX in Germany and Switzerland is uncertain because of widespread opposition to reprocessing and nuclear power in general. Thus the Japanese plutonium program takes on added significance.

Japan already has a stockpile of several tonnes of plutonium, which was (ostensibly) acquired for its now-stalled breeder program. While Japan has not built nuclear weapons, it has the expertise, the industrial and technical infrastructure, and the fissile material, to do so within a period of months or perhaps only weeks. Japan also has the technology to deliver nuclear weapons. Some influential Japanese politicians – including former Cabinet ministers – have publicly advocated nuclear weapons production in Japan in recent years. No doubt these politicians are interested in the military implications of MOX transfers.

While Japan’s bomb lobby wants plutonium for bombs, the logic of other MOX supporters in Japan is more difficult to fathom. The use of MOX, and the troubled breeder program, provides an excuse to send spent fuel overseas for reprocessing. Much of Japan’s spent fuel is held at European reprocessing plants. Major reprocessing plants such as Sellafield have become de facto nuclear waste dumps. Sending spent fuel overseas pacifies public opposition to Japan’s nuclear power program and weakens opposition to plans to construct more reactors.

Regardless of the wishes of the Japanese nuclear industry, there is no certainty that its MOX program will go ahead due to serious technical problems and public opposition.

Australia’s complicity

Official reports show that thousands of tonnes of Australian natural uranium, enriched uranium, depleted uranium and plutonium are held by Japan (whether currently in Japan or in Europe).

In the early 1980s, the Australian government signed agreements permitting the separation of Japanese plutonium produced using Australian uranium at British and French reprocessing plants. The Australian government also agreed to shipments of spent fuel, high-level waste and plutonium between Europe and Japan.

In 1992, the Labor government consented to a shipment of plutonium from France to Japan. The government claimed that Japan would only take receipt of enough separated plutonium for use in its planned fast breeder program. Gareth Evans, then the foreign minister, said “the Government would not support the stockpiling of plutonium by Japan or any other non-nuclear weapon state.” In fact, far more plutonium was sent to Japan than has been used in breeder reactors, and several tonnes are now stockpiled.

The agreement between Australia and Japan was renewed in May 1998, without any public or parliamentary debate. Although the current shipment will not contain plutonium derived from Australian uranium, future shipments definitely will.

Allowing Japan to stockpile plutonium undermines claims that Australia is at the forefront of non-proliferation efforts. According to Greenpeace, “This (MOX) trade places a special burden on the South Pacific region which, thanks to Australia’s pro-nuclear lobbying and secret dealings will be viewed as the path of least resistance for most of the cargoes to travel through. The secretive nature of the Japanese plutonium trade – consented to in closed negotiations by Australian officials (as well as Canberra’s complicity in keeping the route secret from the regional community) exemplifies the undemocratic way in which the Australian government engages in nuclear matters.”

The 1998 agreement could still be reviewed. The department of foreign affairs says that if there are significant changes in Japan’s nuclear program, Australia could challenge the transfer of plutonium derived from Australian uranium. The risk of Japan developing nuclear weapons is itself ample reason to veto the transfers.

The Indian and Pakistani nuclear programs, and China’s nuclear weapons build-up, are providing ideological ammunition for Japan’s bomb lobby and this provides further reason for Australia to prohibit the separation and shipment of plutonium.

Challenging Japan’s plutonium trade would of course jeopardise future uranium sales; customer countries do not want strings attached. Australian governments – Liberal or Labor – have also been unwilling to challenge the passage of spent fuel, MOX, plutonium or high-level waste through the Tasman Sea and the South Pacific. Australian governments do not want to jeopardise the passage of US nuclear armed or powered warships through the region. Moreover, several shipments of nuclear waste from the Lucas Heights reactor in suburban Sydney have been sent overseas, and many more shipments are planned if a new reactor is built.

Scandal erupts as plutonium ships reach Japan

Jim Green, September 1999

A scandal has erupted over the failure of British Nuclear Fuels Limited (BNFL) to carry out safety checks on nuclear fuel elements which it plans to ship to Japan later this year. Following revelations in the British newspaper The Independent, BNFL admitted that records relating to the testing of 11 batches of mixed uranium/plutonium oxide fuel (MOX) had been falsified. Later, BNFL revealed that there were at least twice as many cases of BNFL employees “saving time” by failing to carry out checks and using data from previous samples instead. Three BNFL employees have been suspended.

The scandal comes at an awkward time for BNFL because two ships carrying MOX have just completed a two-month journey from Europe to Japan. Some of this MOX was produced at BNFL’s Sellafield plant, while the rest was produced in France and Belgium.

In Japan, many are demanding thorough checks of the first shipment of MOX, unconvinced by BNFL’s claim that its investigation has cleared it of any irregularities.

On September 15, Fukui Shimbun, a Japanese nuclear safety official in Fukui Prefecture, warned that since an examination of the first shipment “cannot be carried out in Japan, it may be necessary to have the ships transport the fuel back to Europe”.

Japan’s Ministry of International Trade and Industry, and Japanese safety authorities, have demanded assurances over the quality of the first shipment of MOX before allowing it to be used.

Relations are strained. The Kansai Electric Power Company, one of BNFL’s largest clients, flew investigators to the UK and launched its own inquiry into quality control at Sellafield. The British Nuclear Installations Inspectorate is also investigating the scandal.

BNFL is operating what it calls a “demonstration” MOX production plant at Sellafield. It hopes to expand its MOX production capacity to 120 tonnes per year, a significant increase over the current global capacity of 190 tonnes per year. Whether the current scandal will jeopardise BNFL’s planned expansion is not yet clear, but Tony Blair’s New Labour government has proven itself a staunch and uncritical supporter of the nuclear industry.

The French nuclear industry is also planning to expand its use of MOX and its role in the international plutonium trade. Last year, Dominique Voynet, environment minister and leader of the French Greens, agreed to sign two decrees authorising the use of MOX in four French reactors.

The current scandal mirrors a similar one in Japan last year. In December, a Japanese nuclear engineering company admitted falsifying data on the safety of materials supplied to BNFL to line canisters used to transport nuclear materials including spent reactor fuel and MOX. Four power utility companies announced suspension of the use of the canisters pending investigation into their safety.

International protest

One of the two ships carrying the first batch of MOX was expected to dock in Japan on September 22. A crowd of protesters gathered to greet it, but weather conditions prevented docking.

The plutonium shipments have generated a growing international controversy. Bones of contention include safety concerns, the failure to give prior warning to countries passed by the ships, and the inadequacy of international liability arrangements.

Among those to have lodged objections with the Japanese, French and British Governments are Ireland, South Africa, New Zealand, Mauritius, Fiji, the South Pacific Forum, South Korea and the Association of Caribbean States.

Public opposition in South Korea is believed to have been responsible for a decision not to take one of the MOX-laden ships through the straits between Korea and Japan. Long-standing opposition from Caribbean states is believed to have ruled out shipping MOX through the Panama Canal, with the Indian Ocean / Tasman Sea route being preferred instead.

Weapons proliferation

MOX trade poses enormous risks in relation to weapons proliferation. The first shipment to Japan contains enough plutonium for about 60 nuclear weapons, and there are plans for dozens more shipments in the coming years unless international opposition can stop the trade.

Confidential documents obtained by Greenpeace reveal that, since the early 1990s, the US government has been warned by its embassy in Tokyo that Japan’s plutonium program heightens the risk of weapons proliferation in north-east Asia.

A cable from an embassy official to then US secretary of state Warren Christopher in 1993 posed the questions, “Can Japan expect that if it embarks on a massive plutonium recycling program that Korea and other nations would not press ahead with reprocessing programs? Would not the perception of Japan being awash in plutonium and possessing leading edge rocket technology create anxiety in the region?”

These are precisely the questions that anti-nuclear and environmental activists have been asking for years, only to be ignored or lied to.

US embassy officials have also questioned the economic logic of Japan’s plutonium program and speculated that it might be driven primarily by military aspirations. Such speculation has been fuelled a number of times over the years by senior Japanese politicians arguing for a nuclear weapons program. For example, in early August a Japanese Diet (parliament) member from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party suggested that Japan should build nuclear bombs.

However there are major political obstacles facing Japan’s nuclear bomb lobby. The majority opinion within the political and military elite is that Japan now has the best of both worlds: it can truthfully claim not to have built nuclear bombs, while at the same time it has the expertise, equipment and materials to build and deliver nuclear bombs within a space of months, perhaps just weeks.

As a senior nuclear adviser to the Japanese government said in the August 12 edition of Nucleonics Week, Japan is a “virtual weapons state”. (A similar logic lies behind the Australian government’s plan to replace the nuclear research reactor in Sydney, although Australia will remain far behind Japan in terms of nuclear expertise, equipment and materials even with a new reactor.)

Efforts by South Korea and North Korea to pursue nuclear programs which would involve the acquisition of plutonium, or developing the capacity to separate plutonium from spent fuel, have been fiercely resisted by Western governments for decades. However, the plutonium industry, threatened with a collapse in European demand, is now seeking to secure contracts with South Korea in defiance of long standing Western policy to prevent Seoul from obtaining direct-use nuclear weapons material.

Throw in the North Korean nuclear program, and the tension between China and Taiwan, and it is clear that north-east Asia will be a volatile nuclear hot-spot in the next century.

Shaun Burnie, from Greenpeace International, said, “The plutonium powder keg is already smouldering in north-east Asia, and unless the international community, including Clinton, abandon their “selective proliferation policy” it may become an inferno. No country, no matter what their supposed peaceful intentions, should have access to plutonium. Japan should act to halt this slide to nuclear confrontation in Asia and end its unjustified and dangerous plutonium program.”

Desperate for a fig-leaf of ideological legitimacy, governments and companies involved in the plutonium trade often spout the lie that “reactor-grade” plutonium, such as that contained in MOX, cannot be used for nuclear weapons. This is contradicted by successful weapons tests using reactor-grade plutonium.

The ability to use reactor-grade plutonium for weapons production has been admitted by the Australian Safeguards Office, the International Atomic Energy Agency, and the US Department of Energy. To deconstruct the relevant nukespeak, “reactor-grade” plutonium is “weapons-useable” even though higher-purity “weapons-grade” plutonium is better for the purpose.

Australian complicity

Australian governments, past and present, are complicit in the plutonium trade. The Howard government has admitted that some of the plutonium to be fabricated into MOX fuel elements and shipped to Japan in the coming months and years was produced by the irradiation of Australian uranium in Japanese power reactors. Liberal and Labor governments have given approval for the trade of Australian-obligated plutonium between Europe and Japan.

The Australian government’s complicity reflects its pandering to uranium mining companies. This was hinted at by the Department of Foreign Affairs last year when it announced the government’s extension of approval for plutonium transfers: “The European Union is an important provider of nuclear fuel services for countries purchasing Australian uranium and Japan is a major market for Australian uranium exports.”

Also relevant is the love affair between the Howard government and the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation. ANSTO has a stockpile of nuclear waste it wants to ship to the US and the UK; thus it would be the height of hypocrisy to be protesting against the nuclear shipments of other countries and withdrawing consent for the trade of Australian-obligated plutonium. A leaked memo from the Australian delegation to the 1993 South Pacific Forum explicitly linked Australia’s acquiescence to nuclear shipments passing through the region with Australia’s plans to export its own spent nuclear fuel.

The Howard government cannot state the truth – that it has turned a blind eye to the manifold dangers of the plutonium trade in order to support the domestic nuclear industry. Thus the government parrots the fiction that reactor-grade plutonium cannot be used for weapons. The government also downplays the safety risks of the plutonium trade and will continue to do so despite the failure to carry out safety checks and the falsification of records in Japan last year and in the UK this year.

As Jean McSorley from Greenpeace International argued in the July 1996 edition of Chain Reaction, “There are those naive, cynical or ignorant enough to think Australia’s role in the nuclear industry enhances its international standing. That’s not true. This country should stand alongside the weapons states and others who have contaminated the planet, and be charged with aiding and abetting criminal activities.”

Pacific islanders protest plutonium shipments

Jim Green, August 1999

Pacific islanders are organising to try to stop the passage of plutonium reactor fuel from Europe to Japan through south Pacific waters. Two ships carrying mixed uranium/plutonium “MOX” fuel will pass through the Tasman Sea in late August or early September, then through the Exclusive Economic Zones of Pacific island nations. The Fiji based Pacific Concerns Resource Centre (PCRC), which is the Secretariat of the Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific movement, says that Japan, France and Britain are refusing to discuss compensation in the event of an accident, and have failed to conduct detailed environmental risk assessments.

Losena Salabula, from the PCRC, said “We believe that South Pacific governments should work together to end all nuclear shipments through our region. Currently, these shipments of plutonium fuel are not banned by the Rarotonga Treaty for a South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone, or the 1995 Waigani Convention on hazardous wastes. We call on the sixteen member governments of the South Pacific Forum to convene a review conference of the Rarotonga Treaty, to strengthen its provisions against nuclear shipments and nuclear waste dumping on land. We also believe that parties to the Waigani Convention should strengthen its provisions, to place pressure on Japan, Britain and France to halt these shipments”, Salabula said.

The 1985 Rarotonga Treaty banned the testing, production or deployment of nuclear weapons, and the dumping of nuclear waste, in the south Pacific. The Treaty allows for the establishment of a consultative committee for the purpose of “consultation and co-operation on any matter arising in relation to this Treaty or for reviewing its operation”. A consultative committee must be convened “at the request of any Party”. Thus it would be possible for any Pacific island government to ask for the Committee to be convened to address the topic of plutonium fuel shipments to Japan.

The PCRC is also calling for the Waigani Convention – also known as the Convention to Ban the Importation into Forum Island Countries of Hazardous and Radioactive Wastes – to be strengthened to stop transboundary shipments of plutonium.

Salabula said, “In September, the United Nations will be holding a special session on Small Island Developing States. Japan, Britain and France will be shipping plutonium through our waters at the same time. This shows their contempt for the clear wish of Pacific island people – we want to be nuclear-free.”

Action could be taken at this year’s South Pacific Forum meeting in Palau. However Noel Levi, secretary general of the South Pacific Forum Secretariat, said the Secretariat had been unable to convince or compel France, Japan or the UK to begin discussions on a liability regime to compensate the region in the event that an accident impacts on tourism, fisheries and the environment.

The one South Pacific Forum member which habitually turns a blind eye to nuclear shipments through the Pacific is Australia. A leaked memo from the Australian delegation to the South Pacific Forum meeting in October 1993 revealed that the Labor government was lobbying to prevent a ban on the transport of nuclear waste through the region. Australian governments have shipped nuclear waste from the Lucas Heights reactor overseas in the past and plan to do so again in future.

In a point scoring exercise which went wrong, Labor shadow ministers Laurie Brereton and Nick Bolkus released a statement on July 25 expressing concerns about the environmental risks of “high level nuclear waste shipments through the South Pacific region.” In fact it is MOX fuel, not waste, that is being shipped to Japan. Predictably, Brereton and Bolkus did not condemn the shipments, merely calling on the Howard government to commission a scientific review of the environmental risks. The Labor government gave permission for a 1992 shipment of plutonium from Europe to Japan, and it arranged a shipment of spent fuel from the Lucas Heights reactor to Scotland which took place in 1996.

Your worst fears

Rob Edwards

New Scientist, Vol 170, issue 2293, page 4

June 3, 2001

Once terrorists have the nuclear fuel, building a bomb is child’s play.

TERRORISTS could easily make a crude atomic bomb from MOX fuel produced at British Nuclear Fuels’ new plant in north-west England, according to a confidential report submitted to the British government and seen by New Scientist.

The report comes as the state-owned company is trying to get the government’s go-ahead to make MOX, a mixture of plutonium and uranium oxide, for reactor operators in Europe and Japan.

Although the MOX plant, at Sellafield in Cumbria, was completed in 1996, the government has postponed authorising its start-up because of doubts over its economic viability. Last week, as a fourth consultation exercise on the MOX plant ended, Friends of the Earth lodged papers at the High Court in London calling for a judicial review of the consultation, accusing the British government of skewing the process in favour of British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL). The environmental group alleges that the £462 million invested in the plant so far has been disregarded in calculating its financial prospects, and that the results of an independent audit have been withheld from the public.

But now the confidential report submitted to the government highlights another potential problem for the plant. Written by Frank Barnaby, a physicist who worked at the nuclear weapons laboratory at Aldermaston, Berkshire, in the 1950s and later headed the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, it spells out exactly how easy it is to make MOX fuel into a bomb.

Barnaby says that terrorists intent on mass destruction would need no more technical know-how than that used to make the Lockerbie bomb. The expertise required is less than the equivalent skill used in 1995 by the Japanese cult, Aum Shinrikyo, to prepare sarin nerve gas for release into the Tokyo subway, he says.

It would be “sheer irresponsibility” for the government to allow the new plant to open, Barnaby warns, as the theft of MOX fuel pellets would then become a “terrifying possibility”. His report, which was commissioned by the Oxford Research Group, an independent body of scientists studying nuclear issues, comes in the wake of mounting concern about the poor security arrangements for radioactive materials worldwide (New Scientist, 26 May, p 10).

Barnaby reveals three ways of chemically separating the plutonium dioxide from the uranium dioxide in MOX fuel. One, involving lanthanum nitrate as a carrier, was used in 1941 by the atomic pioneer Glenn Seaborg at the University of Chicago. The other two methods-one of which is currently used at the University of Kiev in Ukraine-depend on reactions with resins. The chemistry is less sophisticated than that required for the illegal manufacture of designer drugs, he says. All the details terrorists need are in the published literature or on the Internet, says Barnaby.

A primitive bomb could be made with 35 kilograms of plutonium dioxide, or terrorists could use hydrofluoric acid to precipitate out the pure metal, Barnaby says. Only 13 kilograms of pure metal would be needed to create an explosion with a yield of 100 tonnes of TNT-50 times the size of the largest terrorist bomb to date, in Oklahoma City six years ago.

BNFL points out, however, that MOX fuel would be difficult to steal because it travels under armed guard. The security arrangements “are mature, comprehensive and robust”, says a company spokeswoman. “We are 100 per cent confident in the physical protection measures we have.”

The company points out that turning plutonium into MOX fuel and burning it in reactors could reduce the threat of nuclear weapons proliferation by cutting plutonium stockpiles. Some plutonium also has to be returned to foreign customers because they own it. The risk of MOX fuel falling into the hands of terrorists is “minimal”, BNFL insists.

An atomic explosion in a city centre is “everyone’s worst nightmare”, says Frans Berkhout, a nuclear expert from SPRU (formerly the Science Policy Research Unit) at the University of Sussex, Brighton. But although turning fresh MOX fuel into a bomb is “theoretically possible”, he thinks that in practice terrorists might find cheaper and easier ways of causing mass destruction.