Copeland MP: Government Must Utilise Britain’s Plutonium Stockpile as an Asset

Jamie Reed MP has this morning raised the issue of plutonium disposition in Parliament.

Speaking in a Westminster Hall debate that he secured, the Copeland Plutonium Disposition Follow UpMP who is a member of the Energy and Climate Change Select Committee and a Vice Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Nuclear, called on Government to bring forward a “clear, coherent, timetabled plan” to utilise Britain’s plutonium stockpile as an asset.

Jamie Reed also raised concerns about the proposed Sellafield Workforce Reform programme, explaining that he has sought a meeting between the Prime Minister and representatives of the Sellafield workforce.

The United Kingdom currently stores around 140 tonnes of civil plutonium at the Sellafield site in Jamie Reed’s constituency. This is the largest civil reactor grade plutonium stockpile anywhere in the world.

Copeland MP Jamie Reed said:

Time is of the essence. The longer that Government waits to make a decision on plutonium disposition, the more difficult it will become to implement.

“By investing in, and adhering to a strategic plan to utilise Britain’s plutonium stockpile as an asset, not only will we create an economically beneficial solution to a complex issue, but we will also further integrate nuclear research, knowledge and development in West Cumbria, thus continuing to establish the West Coast as a Centre for Global Excellence.

We continue in West Cumbria to work tirelessly to realise the Energy Coast vision that I have been working to deliver for over a decade now.”.

Jamie Reed’s speech in full (check against delivery):

Plutonium disposition is a subject of the most vital importance to our country. It is important to me personally and it is important to my constituency and every single one of my constituents. Because not only is plutonium one of the most powerful and potentially dangerous materials on the planet, but the largest stockpile of plutonium oxide anywhere in the world is stored that the Sellafield nuclear facility in my constituency.

Sellafield represents one of the UK’s most strategically important pieces of national infrastructure. Created by the Attlee government after the Second World War and the US McMahon Act which forbade US cooperation with any other nation state with regard to nuclear research, the initial purpose of Windscale as it was then known was to produce the materials our country required in order to create, provide and maintain our independent nuclear deterrent. The decision to do so remains one of the most important decisions made by the post war Labour government or any British government since that point. It also remains one of the most towering achievements amongst many that the post war Labour government was responsible for.  That our nuclear deterrent has both protected us, protected our allies and maintained peace on our continent is beyond doubt, the evidence is before us. And in an ever more uncertain world, a world which right now appears to be on fire, it would be an extraordinary act of stupidity for any government to consider removing our deterrent in such circumstances – and in the face of a belligerent and expansionist Russia, the evidence is that these circumstances will remain stable at best in the future.

I digress, but the point is this: my community has performed a unique role in the service of this nation for over 60 years now. As a result, the nation, its centre of government and governments of all colours owe a specific obligation to my community.

These issues of national interest do not wear party colours. Like with nuclear new build – and the Minister knows that I walk the walk on this – such issues are above petty partisan squabbling.

So it follows that the Nuclear Industry is of unique importance to my constituency. West Cumbria is a world leader in Nuclear Excellence and as a community we are working tirelessly to realise the Energy Coast vision that I have been working to deliver for over a decade now – a vision that came into being when Sellafield was faced with a projected job loss total of 8,000 people by 2014 – one of the original forecasts for the end of reprocessing at Sellafield.

I am a Sellafield employee and a third generation nuclear worker. Copeland is the most remotely accessible constituency from Westminster and the Sellafield site alone sustains around 16,000 jobs in West Cumbria directly and indirectly – probably more. I doubt that there is any community in the country so reliant upon a single employer. Future investments in the constituency as a result of NuGen’s three new nuclear reactors at Moorside will create many more jobs and opportunities in my community. Thousands of jobs will be created as a result of the £20 billion investment and Copeland will become one of the fastest growing economies anywhere not just in the United Kingdom but Europe. It has taken us ten years to reach this point, working with successive governments and none of these developments have taken place by accident, but by design.

 The Case for Plutonium as an Asset

 In stressing the obligations of the national government to my community, I want to make the case for plutonium as a national asset.

In West Cumbria and in Britain, we have the potential to lead the world with an effective plutonium disposition strategy. The management of the UK’s plutonium stockpile is an incredibly important and pressing issue facing the nuclear industry, my constituency, and the country as a whole. Movement on the issue – though moving forward incrementally for a decade- has been substantively delayed for too long.

The decision to be made by Government is this: Do we view the 140 tonnes of plutonium sitting in my constituency as a waste, or as an asset? The three prevailing options that have in recent years been considered by Government for the management of plutonium include; treating it as waste and looking to dispose of it deep underground, converting it into Mixed Oxide Fuel (MOX), or using it as a nuclear fuel in a new type of reactor such as PRISM.

If we choose to view the stockpile as waste, it will cost billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money in treatment, storage and disposal. To do so would be to reject taking a long term, effective and strategic approach to the management of nuclear waste. In essence, Government would opt out of choosing to adopt an integrated approach to Britain’s commitment to new nuclear technology. However, if the stockpile is to be classed as an asset, its value will be enormous, and it will be of significant worth to the British economy now and in the future.

To facilitate the realization of this potential, will the Minister commit today to avoid further delays by implementing a structured plan with a fixed timeline so that the plutonium that is stored in my constituency, the largest stockpile of its kind in the world, can be utilised as nuclear fuel? In doing so, Britain would not simply benefit from economic advantages alone. The decision would also help us to meet our non-proliferation objectives, secure our energy supplies and fight climate change.

Now, I expect the Minister to state in her reply tat we have already made the decision to classify our plutonium stockpile as an asset and not a waste and thatwhatwe are now in the process of doing is evaluating which technical process and commercial platform we wish to utilise: Mox, Canmox or Prism. But without a structured, timetabled plan, plutonium as a theoretical asset or theoretical waste both  amount to the same practical policy outcome: indefinite storage.

The inadequacies of this approach are obvious: not least of which the changing nature of some of the stockpile through the presence of americium and other actinides – all of which makes future disposition more difficult and more expensive.

There are consequences to delay and real effects and a real price tag to deferred decisions.

Focus on West Cumbria

As I have already discussed, West Cumbria is a Global Centre for Nuclear Excellence. Skills and expertise in decommissioning at Sellafield, in research and development in the National Nuclear Laboratory, and future investments in Moorside and the National College for Nuclear all require a joined up, forward thinking and integrated approach to plutonium management and technology development.

To continue to lead in Nuclear Excellence, West Cumbria and indeed Britain must be provided with the investment and tools that we need to transform a complex and for some an intractable problem into a powerful asset for the benefit of this country.

West Cumbria has proven time and time again to be an invaluable partner for Government. The skills that we have, and our ability and willingness to host nuclear facilities is to both unique and invaluable. If the Minister can provide the urgent clarity required on this significant issue of public policy, then, as I have outlined repeatedly and over a number of years now, my community can provide the partnership to find the solutions that Britain needs to manage our nuclear stockpile. This is clearly an excellent opportunity both for Government and for my community.

In addition to contributing to the British and Cumbrian economies, the use of our significant plutonium stockpile as an asset will help us to produce the fuel that we need to help power carbon dioxide free electricity generation through nuclear in the future, as well as securing our national energy supply. As I have explained previously, West Cumbria needs it, the country needs it, and my constituents deserve nothing less.

The Need for Speed

As I have outlined, the case for utilising our plutonium stockpile as an asset is substantial. We know from the Coalition Government’s consultation response on the proposed justification process for the reuse of plutonium, that the Government’s preferred option for managing the stockpile is to use it to create MOX fuel for sale.

This is something that Lord Marland set out during his time as Parliamentary Under-Secretary at the Department for Energy and Climate Change. He stated in January 2011 that “If we have the biggest plutonium stock in the world, we must turn that liability into an asset…it is madness to have it sitting there is we can make it a non-cost exercise”. In the same speech, he set out the importance of sending, and I quote, “a clear message to the people of Cumbria, because that is where the Mox plant would be located”. However, disappointingly, the overall illustrative timeline for plutonium management in the UK, which was set out in the Coalition Government’s consultation response on the long-term management of UK-owned separated civil plutonium, has not come to fruition. In fact, little movement has been made on the issue.

Given the existence of the technology, and the ability of the industry to provide such a facility, further delays should not be allowed to continue. Time is of the essence. The longer that Government waits to make a decision on this issue, the more difficult it will become to implement.

Industry, investors, the supply chain, and the workforce and community in my constituency now require clarity and certainty from Government.

I’d like to talk a little about the Sellafield workforce here, because understanding this workforce and the role it has played in our national story over the last 60 years is essential – and it isn’t broadly understood in government.

The Sellafield workforce is home to some of the most highly skilled, uniquely talented workers in the UK. In a nuclear industry context, it is home to some of the most capable, highly skilled workers in the world. It is a knowledgeable workforce. A practical and pragmatic workforce and it is a workforce, which routinely works in some of the most challenging high-risk environments anywhere in the world. Make no mistake; the ability of our country to decommission Sellafield, safely and to budget rests upon the shoulders of this workforce. As such, it should be valued.

Of course improvements can be made in how their abilities are better utilized – the workforce would be the first to suggest this – but it is not the workforce as currently described within the department. It is not a featherbedded, entitled, unproductive workforce. ON the contrary, it’s a workforce that mends problems that politicians often create.

Visit Sellafield – as I believe that Minister has done and I’m very grateful to her for paying such a close interest – and for every decommissioning challenge you see, a political decision usually stands behind it.

From the original Windscale pile chimneys to the legacy fuel issues created in part by the chaos brought about by the Miners’ strikes of the 1970s to the closure of the SMP. I am tempted to write the ‘Political History of Sellafield’ as this is arguably more important than the technical or engineering history of the site, at least in so far as we can explain why the site is at is today.

And at every turn, the Sellafield workforce has been at the forefront of these political decisions, bearing the brunt of the consequences of these decisions for good or ill, always in the national interest, always in the national service.

When the Sellafield Mox Plant closed in August 2011, it was accepted by the Sellafield workforce because they had been promised – and I use that term precisely – that it would be replaced by a new plant and that neither the workforce or the community would be left to accept job losses in addition to accepting no solutions with regard to the plutonium stockpile.

The workforce is waiting for that trust to be repaid. It is waiting for the solutions it was promised.

Now recently, the government has introduced a programme of workforce reform at Sellafield. I have tabled a series of questions about this to the Secretary of State. These questions have been replied to but they have not been answered and this is why I have sought a meeting between workforce representatives and No.10 about this. As matters stand, it isn’t clear who has designed this workforce reform plan, what its objectives are, what the effect will be upon the local community, what the effect will be upon the workforce, what the estimated effect upon the public purse will be or how it will ensure safer, quicker and more efficient delivery of decommissioning.

I hope the Minister will undertake to give me a written response to all of those questions prior to the workforce delegation meeting at No.10.

Fundamentally, there’s a compact here, particularly in light of the 2016 Trade Union Act in which the rights of the Sellafield workforce have been changed, which now risks being broken. This compact is between the state and the men and women of the biggest workforce in my community.

This compact can help to be restored by government bringing forward a clear, coherent, timetabled plan for plutonium disposition.

 To conclude, the need for Government to take a long-term view on plutonium stockpiles is of the utmost urgency. Given Britain’s commitment to new nuclear, and the process in train to identify a site for the long-term geological disposal of radioactive wastes, these essential long-term decisions can no longer be put off.

By investing in, and adhering to a strategic plan to utilise Britain’s plutonium stockpile as an asset, not only will we create an economically beneficial solution to a complex issue, but we will also further integrate nuclear research, knowledge and development in West Cumbria, thus continuing to establish the West Coast as a Centre for Global Excellence.

I am in no doubt that the Minister, the department, my community, the Sellafield workforce and myself, all want the same thing. It’s essential that we agree upon the ‘how’ as well as the ‘what’. The Minister knows that I appreciate the work that she has carried out to date and I look forward to her reply.