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The UK Atomic Energy Authority has applied for planning permission to build a plant to manage the removal of the last of the breeder fuel still inside the Dounreay Fast Reactor (DFR).

Plans submitted to the Highland Council seek consent for the construction of a facility to clean and package the fuel after it has been removed from the landmark experimental reactor.

If permission is granted, the new facility is expected to take two years to build and create 55 jobs during its construction.

DFR operated from 1958 until 1977.  In the early 1980s, nearly all the fuel was removed from the reactor and about a third of the uranium breeder blanket that surrounded the core was also taken out.

In August 2002, an alliance of companies was formed with UKAEA to remove the other 977 breeder elements and the last remaining experimental fuel assembly, using remotely-operated equipment. It is estimated that between five and 10 per cent of the 977 elements may be stuck as a result of neutron exposure distortion during reactor operation.

UKAEA has now applied for planning permission to build a plant adjoining the DFR to receive the fuel once it is extracted from the reactor.

Two small sections of the steel plates that form the famous sphere would be removed to enable the fuel to be transferred to a shielded cell inside the new plant. The fuel would be separated from its cladding and cleansed in a nitrogen atmosphere to remove any residue of liquid metal from the reactor's cooling circuit. The clean fuel would be assayed before being packaged in containers and the cladding removed for management as solid intermediate-level waste. When the new facility is no longer required, the steel plates of the sphere would be reinstated.

Subject to planning and other regulatory consents, UKAEA aims to have the new facility ready to be commissioned in 2007. Removal of the last remaining fuel from the DFR is currently due to be completed by 2010. The total cost of decommissioning DFR by 2032 is in the region of 300 million.

Senior project manager Brian Morris-Ashton said: "Completing the decommissioning of the Dounreay Fast Reactor is one of the major challenges in the clean-up of the UK's nuclear legacy and a cornerstone of restoring the environment of the site. This planning application is an important milestone in meeting that challenge."