The British government has announced that its nuclear-waste reprocessing plant at Dounreay, Scotland, once the heart of the UK fast-reactor programme, is to close within the decade. The plant will cease to take further reprocessing orders with immediate effect.
A commitment to existing contracts — including reprocessing a consignment of highly enriched uranium from Georgia (see Nature 392, 850; 1998) — will keep Dounreay open until 2006. After then, the government wants to turn the site into a model for decommissioning nuclear plants.
However, it is anticipated that redundancies are unlikely to be large-scale. Most of the site's 1,600 staff are expected to become involved in the decommissioning, which will last well into the next century.
The decision to close the plant has been met with disappointment — though not surprise — by Britain's nuclear industry. Dounreay has rarely been out of the headlines in recent years because of its controversial safety record.
Environmental campaigners such as the Friends of the Earth group, on the other hand, are delighted with the decision, but want an immediate end to reprocessing at Dounreay, which is the smaller of Britain's reprocessing facilities, and deals only with fuel from experimental reactors.
The campaigners are also calling on the government to shut down the Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant (THORP), at Sellafield in the northwest of England, which handles the bulk of waste from nuclear power plants in the United Kingdom and overseas.
The Sellafield plant, however, will probably remain unaffected by the Dounreay decision. THORP remains at the centre of plans for Britain to attract the world's reprocessing business, particularly in the event of a revival in nuclear power as a source of energy that does not contribute to global warming.
Dounreay is being closed because there is no “economic case” for supporting commercial reprocessing, according to the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority, which advised the government to close the site.
However, sources in the UK Department of the Environment say that the site's controversial management and safety record, and the ensuing negative publicity, were also factors in the decision.
The government had been considering Dounreay's future for a number of months. The site is badly contaminated. And it is currently closed while officials from the Environment Agency and the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate carry out an audit of safety procedures following concerns over the security of plutonium at the plant, and the accidental cutting of an electric power cable.
Dounreay is the most complex of Britain's civilian nuclear sites. Commercial reprocessing of waste was just one of its various activities. The site was initially built in 1956 as a pilot plant for Britain's now-defunct fast-breeder reactor programme, which was cancelled in 1988.