The United Kingdom looks set to get out of the nuclear-fuel reprocessing business, after a government discussion paper suggested that British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL) shift its emphasis to nuclear decommissioning and waste disposal.

The suggestion has prompted a wave of speculation that BNFL, which runs the Thorp (thermal oxide reprocessing) plant at Sellafield, Cumbria, will close it by 2010, when its current contracts will have expired.

BNFL officials say that no final decision had been made to close the Thorp plant, which cost £1.8 billion (US$2.8 billion) to build and only opened in 1994. But David Bonser, the company's deputy chief executive, acknowledges that Thorp has no more orders after 2010. “Beyond the point that current customers have placed orders, every industry has doubts about what its future's going to be, and we're no different,” Bosner told the BBC.

BNFL is owned by the UK government, but will be taken over by a new Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, responsible for cleaning up Britain's nuclear sites, in 2005.

Spent fuel from nuclear power stations is separated at Thorp into uranium, plutonium and highly radioactive fission products. Uranium and plutonium are then recycled for possible re-use as nuclear fuel. The remaining high-level nuclear waste is turned into a radioactive glass and placed in metal canisters for storage.

Thorp will lose much of its workload when a Japanese reprocessing plant opens for business in 2005. If Thorp closes, Japan and France will be the only countries left pursuing a complete nuclear fuel cycle of the sort widely envisaged when civilian nuclear power emerged 50 years ago. The United States abandoned the fuel cycle in the 1970s following criticism that it produced materials suitable for use in nuclear weapons.

Britain had seen nuclear reprocessing as a money-earner, but business has failed to materialize, and Thorp operates at just 50% of its capacity. “Reprocessing is a profitable business as long as uranium prices are high,” says Ian Hore-Lacy, a spokesman for the World Nuclear Association, a London-based lobby group. “But prices have been low for over a decade because of uranium supplies from Russian weapon stockpiles.”

In addition, several European countries are about to ban the export of spent nuclear fuel for reprocessing, points out Heinz Sager, a spokesman for NAGRA, the Swiss National Cooperative for the Disposal of Radioactive Waste.