Sellafield is the largest industrial site in the UK.(1) It is a large and complex nuclear chemical facility located in West Cumbria which has played a pivotal role within the nuclear industry since the 1940s and is now essentially a nuclear waste plant. Currently site operations include waste spent fuel reprocessing, storage of radioactive waste, including spent waste fuel and storage of plutonium.(2) An enormous amount of public money—some £1.6 billion—is spent at Sellafield each year.(3)
The nuclear facilities on the Sellafield site include:
- Calder Hall – the world’s first commercial nuclear power station. It started generating electricity in 1956 and ceased in 2003. Since then no nuclear electricity has been generated on the site. Defuelling of these reactors is expected to be completed in 2014 with the site entering a care and maintenance phase in 2024.
- Two Windscale pile reactors, used to generate plutonium for the UK’s nuclear weapons programme which were shut down in 1957 after a fire in one of the reactors. These reactors are expected to enter a care and maintenance phase in 2030 with fuel and isotopes removed.
- The Windscale Advanced Gas-cooled Reactor (WAGR) operated between 1961 and 1981. The reactor within the WAGR has already been decommissioned.
- The Magnox Reprocessing Plant, B205, which opened in 1964, is used to reprocess waste fuel from Britain’s oldest reactors, known as Magnox reactors. Most of these have now closed. Reactor 1 at Wylfa is the last remaining operating Magnox reactor. It is expected to close on 30th September 2014. The NDA expects the Magnox reprocessing plant to complete the reprocessing of waste spent fuel from these reactors anytime between 2017 and 2028 depending on how well it operates.(4)
- A second reprocessing plant – THORP – the Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant opened in 1994 to reprocess spent fuel from the UK’s newer Advanced Gas-cooled Reactors (AGRs) and overseas Light Water Reactors. This plant is expected to close in 2018.
- Sellafield MOX plant – This plant was built to convert foreign owned plutonium, separated from spent fuel during reprocessing at Sellafield, into a fuel, known as Mixed Oxide Fuel or MOX, which can be used as a fuel in some nuclear reactors. The Plant, which began operating in 2002, cost the taxpayer £1.3 billion to build and run. It was designed to produce 120 tonnes of MOX fuel each year, but was beset by technical problems and managed only 13.8 tonnes in its entire lifetime. It was closed in August 2011.(5)
The vitrification (solidifying in glass blocks) of the liquid high level waste (HLW) stored on site is expected to be complete by 2021. The NDA says it expects to start transferring Intermediate Level Waste (ILW) to a Geological Disposal Facility (GDF) in 2040, with HLW following in 2075.
Final site clearance is expected to take place in 2120, over one hundred years from now. So, there are going to be jobs at Sellafield for a while yet, but the profile will be one of reducing employment over the next century.
Cumbria had a population of 499,900 according to the 2011 census(6) with 368,880 people economically active.(7) The Sellafield site employs over 10,000 people and, of course, will support other jobs in the local supply chain. So Sellafield employs about 2.7% of the economically active population of Cumbria.
As the main focus of activity at Sellafield began to change from reprocessing to decommissioning, it was feared that thousands of jobs would be lost in the West Cumbrian economy. However, the 2011 Sellafield Plan envisages an acceleration of decommissioning and the maintenance of relatively high employment levels. This will allow Cumbria more time to adjust and invest in retraining and re-skilling of the workforce.(8) According to Britain’s Energy Coast, without nuclear new build the number of jobs in the nuclear industry will fall by 1,800 by 2027.(9) The Sellafield Plan shows that in 2020 there could still be between 8 – 10,000 working on site and by 2030 between 7– 9,000. This is not a rapid fall off in numbers at all. Indeed there are still likely to be 5 – 6,000 working on site in 2050.(10) There is clearly going to be some uncertainty over future numbers employed because it depends partly on political whim. Despite the current Government’s austerity measures, the publication of a highly critical National Audit Office (NAO) report on Sellafield in November 2012, has prompted the NDA to announce that it would recruit 500 extra workers to help grapple with some of the most hazardous parts of the site.(11) A further 142 jobs were announced in March 2013.(12)
- Sellafield Plan, NDA and Nuclear Management Partners, August 2011
- NDA website accessed 29th April 2014
- Nuclear Decommissioning Authority: Managing risk at Sellafield, Public Accounts Committee 4th Feb 2013, page 3.
- The Magnox Operating Programme MOP9, NDA 2012 (Page 3 suggests Magnox reprocessing might not be completed until around 2028)
- Times 4th August 2011
- Carlisle News & Star 17th July 2012
- Office of National Statistics (accessed 29th April 2014)
- Sellafield Plan NDA and Nuclear Management Partners, August 2011 page 2.
- The West Cumbria Economic Blueprint, Britain’s Energy Coast, August 2012
- Sellafield Plan, NDA and Nuclear Management Partners, August 2011, page 183.
- Times 7th December 2013
- Cumberland News 7th March 2013