The UK’s first commercial nuclear reprocessing plant is celebrating a land mark birthday – still going strong after 50 years of safe operations.
Sellafield’s Magnox Reprocessing Plant first opened its doors in the same year the Great Train robbers went on trial, and the very first episode of Match of the Day hit the first ever portable televisions.
It was an age before computers were able to help scientists plan and run nuclear plants, and the fact that Magnox has lasted for twice the length of time it was designed to, and is still reprocessing fuel and helping to keep lights on around the UK in 2014, is testament to the skills of the engineers who built the facility, true nuclear pioneers.
To celebrate that special birthday, Sellafield Ltd, the company who manage operations at Sellafield today, invited 50 former staff members back to visit the old facility, and see how it has changed over the years.
One of the group, John Hall, who was the night shift manager the night the very first fuel rods were put into the plant, said: “The Magnox reprocessing plant really has proved to be the backbone of the UK’s nuclear industry, and it’s doing important work today as it has always done.
“I remember that first night when it had been turned on, we went on the night shift not knowing what to expect. I mean, we sort of knew it was going to work because we were professional and we trusted the theory, but it was still something of a leap of faith to see exactly how it would work and what would happen — as there was no way you could be absolutely certain until you turned it on and waited to see what happened. It was a nervous first night and something I will never forget.
“There has obviously been a lot of modernisation in terms of bringing the plant up to current safety standards, and retrospectively fitting state of the art safety equipment, including computers, but in essence it still looks and feels very much like it did all those years ago. When I retired in 1994 I didn’t think I’d ever get to come back – but I’m glad I’ve been able to. I’m proud of having played a part in something that has been so important to the global nuclear industry and the fabric of the local area.”
Mark Jackson, the current Head of the Magnox Operating Unit said: “The longevity of the plant, and its safety record, are a real success for not only the nuclear industry, but industry as a whole.
“Imagine a car from 1964 still running on the roads today, and not just being brought out for exhibitions or displays, but actually doing hard miles, every month, come what may. That’s what our Magnox Reprocessing Plant does, and we are extremely proud of it.
“Of course from time to time we face challenges – you’d expect to with a plant this old – but we have a skilled and talented workforce, many of whom have worked in this plant for their entire careers, and whatever comes up, we overcome it and move forward. Some of the operators on the plant have been there for more than 40 years, they know it inside out and are able to pass on their knowledge to the younger team members.”
The government, most recently via the NDA, has invested heavily in maintaining the plant, such is the significance of the role it plays in reprocessing spent nuclear fuel from power stations around the UK. Without Magnox operating safely they wouldn’t be able to generate power for the National Grid.
It takes fuel from Magnox Reactors – like the one that used to run at Sellafield, Calder Hall, and recycles it, dissolving the uranium bar so that plutonium and fission products produced in nuclear reactors can be separated, with the plutonium and uranium able to be reused to make fresh fuel.
More than 52,000 tonnes of fuel have been reprocessed in the plant over the past 50 years.
It currently employees over 400 people, and is estimated to have sustained thousands of jobs in West Cumbria since it opened.
The plant is due to close down in around 2020 – but work to fully decommission it will take decades longer.