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Dalton Nuclear Institute

Managing the UK plutonium stockpile: no easy choices

Our paper examines the key things that government must consider when making the tough choice: should the UK plutonium stockpile become waste or energy?

Plutonium storage at the Sellafield nuclear site. Photo credit: Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, 2019.

Over the last six decades, the UK has built up a stockpile of some 140 tonnes of civil plutonium, currently stored as plutonium dioxide powder in Sellafield. After the period of storage, what should happen to it? Should it be used in future nuclear reactors, or should it be treated as waste and disposed of in the planned UK geological disposal facility?

The paper

Managing the UK plutonium stockpile: no easy choices

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How could the plutonium be useful for future reactors? Firstly, it could simply be used as fuel for existing or future thermal reactors; secondly, it could also be used to kickstart the process of utilising the UK's 100,000 tonne supply of Depleted, Natural and Low-Enriched Uranium (DNLEU) in fast reactors, which has the potential to power the UK for centuries. There may even be applications in future fusion reactors.

While this all sounds promising, successfully delivering such outcomes would take time, money and organisation; and as it stands, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority is in the process of repackaging the plutonium stocks into more robust containment. The future may ensure that extracting the energy from the plutonium is unnecessarily expensive, and it might be simpler and cheaper to consider it a waste material alongside the other waste from the nuclear industry, and safely dispose of it.

“Decide in haste, repent at leisure” has been a long-time feature of UK decision making in nuclear power. In this paper we outline ten key recommendations to assist UK policymakers in making the best decisions in good time.

The authors

The Deputy Director

The University of Manchester’s Dalton Nuclear Institute is a world-leading cross-disciplinary nuclear research institute, providing research across the whole fuel cycle, delivering impact to industry, governments and regulators, and supporting the UK’s long term nuclear ambition. Read more about the Dalton Nuclear Institute.