Ted Case Studies

UK Nuclear Fuel Reprocessing

Environmental and Trade Implications



CASE NAME: UK Nuclear Processing


1. The Issue

British Nuclear Fuels Limited (BNFL), the largest nuclear reprocessing plant in the world, recently began operation of its new Thermal Oxide Reprocessing (Thorp) Plant in northwest England. This plant, located on BNFL's Sellafield site, is the third reprocessing plant to be constructed at Sellafield, and has been a hot topic of debate in recent years among nuclear industries and environmental activists. The reprocessing plant created a number of employment opportunities, and welcomed trade with many countries including Germany and Japan. However, concerns have been raised regarding Thorp's impact on the environment and the health of citizens working at the site and those living in the nearby vicinity. On one hand, Thorp is recognized for providing the means by which new energy resources and jobs may be created, as well as for trade opportunities. On the other hand, the dangers posed to the environment and human safety must also be weighed in the analysis.

2. The Description

Nuclear energy is one of the most controversial alternative energy sources. The advantages of nuclear energy include: a small amount of uranium producing a vast amount of energy, minimal waste, no CO2 produced like fossil fuels, and more energy production than any other alternative. These advantages have been met by a similar number of disadvantages arising from processes carried out on behalf of creating nuclear energy, including: birth defects linked to radioactive waste, contamination of seas and rivers causing serious pollution problems, and for some countries, minimal cost effectiveness.

The process by which nuclear energy is created is referred to as reprocessing. Technically, reprocessing is the chemical treatment of spent reactor fuel to separate the plutonium and uranium from spent fuel rods and from each other, to be used again as fuel (1). Typically, nuclear reprocessing plants, such as Thorp plant, carry out a chemical operation which separates the elements of the fuel rods; thereby extracting 97% uranium and plutonium which can be utilized again for energy purposes. The other 3% is referred to as the waste product. The waste is conditioned; however, by converting it into a glass product through a process called vitrification, and then returned for disposal to the country from which it came. Plutonium extracted can also be used as fuel after it is combined with uranium, a product named mixed oxide fuel (MOX), which is even more rich in energy than the uranium (2).

According to BNFL, there are several good reasons for reprocessing nuclear fuel. For instance, reprocessing has been technically proved as an efficient way to treat nuclear fuel. It reduces the volume of nuclear waste by 25% compared to direct disposal of fuel after one use. Additionally, the reprocessed fuel provides the source for electricity for many years. Indeed, reprocessing also reduces the amount of uranium to be mined; which in turn, lowers the radiation dose produced through mining fresh uranium. In fact, reprocessing does not produce radioactivity. If the waste is not reprocessed; however, it must be stored above ground until a decision is made to either reprocess it , or bury it underground. Currently, there is no specialized means of burying used fuel underground, but there are ways to treat waste from reprocessing. Therefore, if nuclear fuel is not reprocessed, all the used fuel becomes waste, thus producing a larger volume of radioactive waste than if the fuel would have been reprocessed (3).

A new business for BNFL is production of MOX fuel. Sellafield, in the UK, is the home of the new Thorp plant which reprocesses used fuel, thus creating MOX fuel. Thorp is the third reprocessing plant constructed at Sellafield. Initial ideas for the plant began as early as 1974 with realization that the world demand for reprocessed and recycled fuel was continuously growing. Thorp underwent a series of trial tests before its reprocessing activities were authorized in order to preview the plant's operations and to consider safety and environmental impacts (4). British officials granted authorizations for the plant to begin operations in 1994.

Trade Measures

A number of electricity generating companies have decided to use reprocessing for spent nuclear fuel. Both Japan and Germany welcomed the 1992 decision in the UK for Thorp's operation. Conveniently, they are also the plant's two largest customers (5). In fact, the Japanese nuclear industry has a long-established nuclear transporting and reprocessing relationship with BNFL dating back to 1969. Recently, in 1995, BNFL, supported by the British Energy Minister and the British Government, opened its new BNFL office in Tokyo. Furthermore, Japan has begun construction of its own reprocessing plant, to begin operation by 2000 (6). The German case is somewhat more complicated. German officials are attempting to establish operations at Gorleben, which is Germany's proposed nuclear waste disposal site. However, this site has been the center of hostile anti-nuclear campaigning by protesters who would rather not have a high-level nuclear waste site in their back yard. Until German authorities at state and national levels agree on the waste disposal site, the German nuclear industry will rely on its reprocessing contracts with BNFL's Thorp plant, as well as with France's Cogema plant for recycling nuclear waste (7). Overall, BNFL has supplied nuclear fuel services to overseas customers for over forty years.

There are many cases for and against BNFL's construction and operation of its newly developed Thorp plant. Those in favor of the plant argue for its positive environmental, safety and economic impacts. Those against authorization of the Thorp plant argue that reprocessing has a negative impact on the environment and on human health. Also, these arguments claim that reprocessing activities create optimal chances for terrorists or others to obtain nuclear fuel, thus enhancing the proliferation risk.

Transshipment Concerns

BNFL's announcement in 1990 regarding construction of Thorp, the new MOX plant at Sellafield, was met by both acceptance and displeasure. From one point, " This (process) would allow a substantial contribution towards energy conservation, an objective supported by most people concerned about the environment." (8) Additionally, reprocessing met the standards for both near and long-term waste management, control of radioactive waste materials contained in spent fuel, and eventual safe disposal (9). Moreover, Thorp would generate revenue from overseas customers, from which approximately 75% of BNFL's profits derived.

Yet, arguments abounded against the planned nuclear reprocessing operations at Thorp. Environmental groups, such as Greenpeace, conveyed that activities carried out on behalf of Thorp caused potential threats to the environment. For example, concerns were raised regarding emergency procedures in the event of a shipping accident while en route between Europe and Japan. Accordingly, BNFL has published standards for shipping nuclear materials overseas, which illustrate the various safety precautions which must be enforced. For example, special ships are utilized which have a range of safety features, such as double hulls to with stand collision damage, and enhanced buoyancy to prevent against sinking if an accident should occur (10). These ships have a perfect safety record, having traveled over three million miles without an accident or nuclear spill (11). In addition, nuclear materials must be packaged according to strict international standards (see picture).

Accordingly, procedures have been established in the event of an emergency. The ships are tracked by various methods, one of which is through sonar location devices. Also, an emergency team of trained specialists is on twenty four hour standby. Therefore, if one of the ships were to meet problems, a team would be dispatched to manage the situation without depending on assistance from nearby countries (12). Overall, BNFL has ensured that all aspects of the transportation arrangements have been considered.

Environmental/Health Concerns

Unsurprisingly, concerns regarding the dangers associated with radiation and its effects on humans, as part of the environment, were revisited following BNFL's announcement of construction of Thorp. In the past, studies were conducted in an effort to determine if nuclear activities being carried out at the Sellafield, where Thorp is being constructed, were contributing to incidents of cancer in plant workers and their offspring. Although it is too early to determine what effect, if any, Thorp will have on workers or on the environment, there is a well acknowledged case from November 1983 relating to the dangers imposed by nuclear operations at Sellafield. A controversial television documentary, "Windscale, the nuclear laundry," drew attention to the cases of leukemia in children in the vicinity of Sellafield, as opposed to in other areas where nuclear facilities operated (13). The government immediately responded to the documentary by establishing a commission, lead by Sir Douglas Black, a medical scientist, to review the accusations presented in the program (14).

The Black Commission's study found that the risks imposed by living near Sellafield, or working within its concrete walls, posed no greater challenge than the risks people face in any other daily events (15). When the public was questioned about the outcome of the report, they replied with mixed responses ranging from reassurance, to feelings of outrage that the report's results were just a reassurance exercise extended by the government to answer a public outcry(16).

Another vital part of the environment claimed to have been effected by radiation from activities at Sellafield are shellfish in the North Irish Sea. Since 1952, Sellafield has been dumping radioactive waste into the Irish Sea and subsequently, "this sea is now considered one of the most radioactive bodies of water in the world" (17). In December 1996, it was reported that radioactive lobsters, winkles, limpets, mussels, and scampi had been found all along the coast as a result of discharges from Sellafield (18). Yet, sales of lobsters to restaurants continued because these discharge levels were considered to be routine, and not because of an accident(19). It appears that even if these claims are valid, consumers are still purchasing the shellfish.


Nuclear energy has been the source of debate in the United Kingdom for many years. Thus, when BNFL announced production of its new reprocessing plant at Sellafield, this sparked a renewed interest in the impact that reprocessing activities may have on trade and the environment. Although it is too early to determine exactly how the activities at Thorp will impact trade and the environment, it is not difficult to recognize that concerns are being raised based on past experiences.

3. Related Cases

Russia Nuclear Smuggling

Japan Plutonium

Irish Sea Nukes

Ural Mt. Radiation

Siberia Nukes

Chernobal Accident

4. Draft Author: Melissa Krupa, May 1997


5. Discourse and Status: Agreed and In Progress

Long before plans to construct the new Thorp reprocessing plant at Sellafield were announced, BNFL had been taken to British High Court by specific groups for nuclear-related reasons. For instance, Sellafield was under fire for cases in which employees or their children were diagnosed with cancer, or for other potential environmental hazards. Yet, the British government, and specifically British ministers, granted Thorp's authorization and subsequently, issued an operating license for the plant to begin work in January 1994. Even after this authorization, environmentally aware organizations such as Greenpeace and Lancashire County Council questioned the decision and took the case to court again. A high court judge ruled that the British government did not act "illegally or irrationally in approving the Thorp nuclear reprocessing plant at Sellafield.(20)" Moreover, the judge re-stated that the original ministers who approved the authorization took all relevant issues into account. Greenpeace and others still argue that the courts should have ordered a public inquiry into the matter (21).

Recently, Greenpeace attempted to discredit the plant and to delay shipping operations. For example, In 1996, Greenpeace was ordered to pay BNFL $115,000 "for being in breach of a court injunction preventing Greenpeace from interfering with BNFL" operations overseas(22). Likewise, there are cases of contaminated Shellfish in the norther Irish Sea where the Sellafield plant is responsible for disposing of nuclear waste.

In most cases, Sellafield has been supported by the British government. However, if BNFL becomes more privatized, as indicated in at least once source, then government support may decline to some extent. Also, as Thorp continues to import nuclear fuel on an international scale, reprocess it, and then export the vitrified waste overseas, there may be more cases arising.

6. Forum and Scope: UK and Unilateral

7. Decision Breadth: 1

8. Legal Standing: Law

The British government approved measures for operation of the Thorp reprocessing plant at Sellafield. Moreover, when the ruling was disputed a second time, UK High Court judges ascertained that the British government did not act illegally or irrationally in approving Thorp's operations.


9. Geographic Locations:

Geographic Domain: Europe

Geographic Site: Northwest Europe

Geographic Impact: United Kingdom

While the Thorp reprocessing plant is located in Western Europe, it imports nuclear fuel from overseas partners; one of the largest of which is Japan. After reprocessing, the nuclear waste is then shipped back to the country of origin in a glass form, resulting from a process known as vitrification. Also, it is worth considering what would happen if nuclear materials were diverted while en route between countries, or if there was a shipping accident. BNFL and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) both have emergency procedures outlined in the event of an accident, such as twenty-four hour policing services and sonar radar measurements of the ocean floor. The containers utilized for shipping the nuclear fuel must meet specific safety requirements. Fortunately, there has not been an emergency yet. Areas in Europe surrounding the nuclear facilities, such as the Scottish Sea, where nuclear waste has been disposed of, are also impacted. Most importantly, there are cases of the negative impact that the operations at the facilities may have on humans residing in nearby towns.

10. Sub-national Factors: No

11. Type of Habitat: Temperate


12. Type of Measure:

Import Standards

Under international standards, a license is required in most cases in order to transfer nuclear materials across borders. At times, countries already have arrangements in place that allow for the shipment of nuclear material without an export license.

13. Direct vs. Indirect Impact: Direct

It is through reprocessing nuclear fuel that energy is created. There is also a slight indirect impact, in that nuclear waste could potentially have a negative impact on the environment and on human health within the trading borders.

14. Relation of Measure to Impact:

Directly Related to Product: YES - Nuclear Energy

Indirectly Related to Product: NO

Not Related to the product: NO

Related to the Process: YES - Radioactive

15. Trade Product Identification: Nuclear Fuel

The end product in this case is nuclear energy which was gained through reprocessing. Nuclear Waste, in the form of a glass, is also an end product. However, approximately only 3% of the fuel used in reprocessing becomes nuclear waste.

16. Economic Data:

In 1995 alone, BNFL was named the fastest growing UK exporter by the Financial Times annual exporter survey(23). This was amazing growth since the other fastest growing industries were in the car, computing. and telecommunications business. BNFL Chairman John Guiness related that seventy-five per cent of BNFL profits should derive from overseas earnings(24). Moreover, the company recently opened international nuclear markets in both Beijing and Tokyo. In fact, BNFL has a long-standing well- established relationship with Japanese nuclear industry.

The significantly new operations at BNFL's Thorp plant, including its MOX reprocessing activities, generated nine-billion dollars of orders stretching over the next fourteen years(25). Reprocessing offers a viable and logical alternative to mining, which will hopefully maintain uranium prices(26). "Many countries have already decided to utilize reprocessing as part of long-term policies (27)."

Interestingly, one source indicates that BNFL is gradually becoming more independent and moving away from government assistance. The demands set in place by the competitive international market are the same factors leading BNFL towards privatization (28). BNFL's mission in the past had been to "offer jobs to the community and be technically perfect as a scientific type of firm;" whereas now, BNFL's mission is to "ensure that nuclear electricity in the UK is competitive with other sources of electricity, and also to become internationally competitive.(29)"

17. Degree of Competitive Impact: High

The nuclear industry is a highly competitive, international market, and is continuously growing. For numerous reasons, nuclear power is viewed as an effective source of energy for the future. Thorp's new MOX plant is highly profitable and efficient, and it will continue to import nuclear fuel for reprocessing as long as the company is successfully operating.

18. Industry Sector: Utility

19. Exporter and Importer: Japan and UK


20. Environmental Problem Type: Radioactivity

21. Species Information:

Name: Various, ranging from shellfish living in contaminated waters, to humans living in contaminated radioactive environments.

Type: Various

IUCN Status: RARE; however, humans exposed to large doses of radioactivity over a long period of time are likely to acquire serious health problems, such as cancer.

22. Impact and Effect: HIGH and Structured

23. Urgency and Lifetime: HIGH and 100s of Years

Although there is not a threat of extinction because of the reprocessing activities, there are serious environmental and health impacts to be considered. If radioactive waste builds up in rivers and streams, it can contaminate shellfish to a high degree. Also, there are cases of cancer in areas where humans are exposed to a fair amount of radiation over the course of many years. This is the m>

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facilities. While reprocessing only produces 3% nuclear waste, (and 97% energy), the waste still must be maintained with a sense of urgency for environmental and health purposes.

24. SUBSTITUTE: Biodegradable Products


25. Culture: No

26. Human Rights: YES

In the past, cases have risen suggesting that exposure to radioactivity could cause cancer (leukemia) in children and in employees working at nuclear facilities plant who are exposed to radiation over a period of time.

27. Trans-Border: YES

28. Relevant Literature:

All information acquired from the Thorp Brochure was taken off BNFL's Webpage regarding the Thorp and Sellafield plants, or other related issues. All information from that particular Website was taken from the Thorp Brochure, 1996, courtesy of BNFL, Thorp. Theses articles and press releases included:

  • -"BNFL Hot Issues," 14 January 1997, Press Statement

  • -"BNFL Tops in Export Growth," Press Release 12th October, 1995.

  • -"A Brief History of Thorp."

  • -"Discharges, Environmental Annual Report 1994 - Site Reports."

  • -"Greenpeace Ordered to Pay Damages to BNFL by French Court, Press Release 13th June, 1996."

  • -"Health and Safety and the Environment."

  • -"Nuclear Energy, Advantages and Disadvantages."

  • -"Shipments of Nuclear Materials Between Europe and Japan, Media Brief -4th December 1996."

  • -"Reprocessing."

  • -"UK Government Minister opens BNFL's new Tokyo Office, Press Release 4th October 1995."

  • -"Waste Management Policy."

  • Denny Arthur, "The Case for Reprocessing," in Frank Barnaby's Plutonium and Security, The Military Aspects of the plutonium economy,,(New York: St. Martins Press, 1992), pp. 10-16.

  • Eavis, Paul "The Case Against Reprocessing,"in Frank Barnaby's Plutonium and Security, The Military Aspects of the plutonium economy,,(New York: St. Martins Press, 1992), pp. 17-28.

  • "Cancer excess near UK nuclear site confirmed," The Lancet, vol. 347, April 6, 1996, p. 964.

  • "Gorleben is the centre of anti-nuclear campaigning," The Financial Times Limited, Power Europe, July 15, 1994. no page provided. Level 1-3 of 10.

  • Magill, S M, Sellafield's Cancer-Link controversy, The Politics of Anxiety, (Great Britain: Page Bros (Norwich) Limited, 1987),198 pp.

  • "The Nuclear Industry of Japan and Germany welcome British Decision," Environmental Science and Technology, vol. 28, No.2, 1994. p. 56 A.

  • Salama, Alzira, Privatization: Implications for Corporate Culture Change, (Avebury, England: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 1995) 165 pp.

  • "Thorp go-ahead," New Scientist, 1994.


  • 1. U.S. Department of Energy, Nuclear Terms Handbook,1996.

  • 2. British Nuclear Fuels PLC, Report on Reprocessing, BNFl Website, p.1.

  • 3. "Reprocessing," Taken from, The Thorp Brochure,Courtsey of BNFL Thorp., 1996, (BNFL Website)

  • 4. "A Brief History of Thorp," Taken from The Thorp Brochure,Courtsey of BNFL Thorp., 1996, (BNFL Website)

  • 5. International Section, Environmental Science and Technology,vol.28,no.2, 1994, pg.56.

  • 6. Press Release 4th October, 1995, "UK Government Minister opens BNFL's new Tokyo office," Taken from The Thorp Brochure,Courtsey of BNFL Thorp., 1996, (BNFL Website)

  • 7. "Gorleben is the Center of anti-nuclear campaigning," The financial Times Limited, Power Europe, July 15, 1994, (no page provided).

  • 8. Denny, Arthur, "The Case for Reprocessing," in Frank Barnaby's Plutonium and Security, The Military Aspects of the Plutonium Economy, (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992), pp 10-16.

  • 9. Ibid.
  • 10. Media Brief-4 December 1996, "Shipments of Nuclear material Between Europe and Japan," Taken from The Thorp Brochure,Courtsey of BNFL Thorp., 1996, (BNFL Website)

  • 11. Ibid.

  • 12. Ibid.

  • 13. S.M. Macgill, Sellafield's cancer-link controversy, the politics of anxiety,( Great Britain: Page Bros (Norwich) Ltd., 1987) pp.198.

    Eavis, Paul, " The Case Against Reprocessing," in Frank Barnaby's Plutonium and Security, The Military Aspects of the plutonium Economy, (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992), pp 17-28.
  • 14. Ibid.

  • 15. Ibid.

  • 16. Ibid.

  • 17. Taken from sella.htm, p1.

  • 18. Brown, Paul, "Sellafield shellfish radioactivity soars," in The Guardian, 12 December 1996, p.1

  • 19. Ibid.

  • 20. "Thorp go-ahead," New Scientist, 1994.

  • 21. Ibid.

  • 22. Press Release 13th June 1996,Greenpeace Ordered to pay Damages to BNFL by French Court," courtesy of BNFL Thorp, 1995, (BNFL Website).

  • 23. Press Release 12th October, 1995, "BNFL Tops in Exports," Tken from The Thorp Brochure,courtesy of BNFL Thorp, 1995 (BNFl Website).

  • 24. Ibid.

  • 25. Ibid.

  • 26. "Reprocessing," Thorp Brocure1996 (BNFL Website).

  • 27. Ibid.

  • 28. Alzira Salama, "British Nuclear Fuels Ltd (BNFL) Case Study, Privitization: Implications for Corporate Culture Change,(Avebury, England: Ashgate Publishing Ltd., 1995) pp.41-54.

  • 29. Ibid.

    May, 1997