Thursday, 31 December 2015

Wylfa's secret role in nuclear warhead production‏

Letter sent to theWestern Mail:

Your report (December 30) on the closure of Wales’ last nuclear power plant, at Wylfa on Anglesey,  marks an important moment in Welsh industrial history. (“Wylfa nuclear power station marks its final day after more than 40 years in service” (


Wylfa Site Director, Stuart Law, is reported in Heledd Pritchard’s article as saying the closure marks a “safe and dignified end to the generation of electricity at Wylfa” and that the main focus for the coming months is to prepare staff and the site for defuelling the Magnox reactors, originally ordered by the now defunct nationalised power generator, the Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB) in the late 1960s.

But the account of the 44 years’ operating life of the reactor omits one very important aspect: the production of plutonium for use in nuclear warheads, both in Britain and the US.

This was first revealed in an exclusive front page Western Mail story by your then political editor, Sarah Neville, on 8 October 1984. It was followed in more detail by former Labour MP for Blaenau Gwent, Llew Smith - for whom I used to do research - on in a feature article in the Western Mail on 3 March 1986, followed up by a letter in the paper from Mr Smith  (“Safety problems at Wylfa Nuclear plant, “11 December 1995).

Mr Smith cited an interview I conducted on 19 January 1983 with the late Lord Hinton, the first chairman of the CEGB, (barely five months before his death, at which point he was still advising the electricity industry) in which he said to me “Wylfa is a long and sad story. It ought not have been built at all, but when I suggested this to the Permanent Secretary [at what is now the Department  of Energy and Climate Change]  he said you have got to build it in order to meet the government programme.”

The programme to which Lord Hinton referred was not electricity generation but plutonium production, as became clear in the Sizewell B nuclear plant public inquiry  which had just begun when I interviewed Lord Hinton, and ran for 333 days.

During that inquiry, Professor Keith Barnham , who with myself  gave expert evidence for the CND Sizewell Working Group, produced technical evidence demonstrating  around 630 kilogrammes (+ or – 80 kgs) of plutonium produced in UK magnox reactors had been exported to the US for military use ( a nuclear warhead c typically uses 5-10 kilos). This research was published in detail in the prestigious international science weekly  journal, Nature, on 19 September 1985.

A decade later, in October 1995, former Labour peer, the late Lord Hugh Jenkins of Putney, a life-long CND supporter, asked the Government in a written Parliamentary question (headed, Wylfa Power Station: Plutonium Creation109WA ) ‘how much plutonium Wylfa nuclear power station has created since it began operation in 1971, where it has gone and where it is now, and what relationship there is at the plant between plutonium production and the generation of electricity.

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie,  answering for the Conservative Government said: “Since 1986/87, estimates of the plutonium contained in the reactor discharges at Wylfa power station have been published as part of the annual plutonium figures. I cannot answer for previous Administrations. Amounts arising from Wylfa continue to contribute to the United Kingdom's civil holdings under international safeguards…Irradiated fuel from Britain's various civil Magnox reactors is reprocessed together and therefore the plutonium arising, whether in store or exported, is not linked to the specific power station in which it was created.”  [House of Lords 23 October 1995, column 109WA 109WA]

The give-away is the minister’s admission that nuclear fuel from all Magnox reactors was “processed together” (at Sellafield)   and hence the recovered plutonium  loses  it identity.

The export of UK plutonium to the US took place under a controversial 1958  bilateral  UK-US deal, called the Mutual Defense Agreement on Atomic energy matters ( as amended in 1959) The word defence is spelled with an ‘s’ even in the British edition, giving away the origin of its drafters in the US!)

When this draft agreement was discussed in the US Congress on 4 February 1958 (it was never debate in the British Parliament at all before coming into force) Lewis Stauss,  chairman of the US Atomic Energy Commission, let slip the following nuclear nugget of information on the aim of the deal with the UK “This is primarily to supply plutonium to us for our unrestricted use, which is to say , at present, our  military use.”

This UK-US MDA was most recently renewed in October 2014,( ) and despite being challenged by the then Labour back bench MP Jeremy Corbyn, in a Parliamentary debate on 6 November 2014 ( , remains in force.

So when Wylfa’s final discharge of spent nuclear fuel is finally reprocessed at Sellafield, the plutonium could still end up in US nuclear warheads

We should not be complacent about this .

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