Chapelcross (United Kingdom)

Map of Chapelcross

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4 * 50 MW Magnox (GCR) units in operation since 1959, constructed by UKAEA

While Chapelcross has never been involved in the assembly of nuclear weapons it has, throughout its life, played a key role in the British nuclear weapons programme. In the 1950s the UK decided to build up a large arsenal of nuclear bombs and missile warheads. The first batches of weapons grade plutonium in the 1950s had been produced at Windscale (now renamed Sellafield). However this facility was destroyed in Britain's worst nuclear accident in 1958. Two nuclear plants were constructed to provide the bulk of the plutonium required for Britain's bombs. The first was at Calder Hall, within Windscale/Sellafield. The second was at Chapelcross and became operational in February 1959.

Because of its military role, the reprocessing of spent fuel from Chapelcross was kept outside of international regulation. However in 1998 the government announced that: "All re-processing from defence reactors at Chapelcross will in future be conducted under EURATOM safeguards and made liable to inspection by the IAEA". This signalled an end to military plutonium production.

The original design life of the reactors at Chapelcross was 20 years. On this basis they would have been closed in 1979. The life of the plant has been extended by a series of reviews. In 1990 the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate said that it could operate for 40 years and then in 1998 they said it could carry on for 50 years. These recomendations are highly suspect. It has been suggested that the NII has avoided allocating its most rigorous inspectors to reviewing Chapelcross. The Ministry of Defence has been keen to stretch the life of these reactors as far as possible.

Chapelcross is permitted to discharge large quantities of radioactive material into the sea and air. In addition to this there have been a serious of unauthorised discharges from the site.

Particles of irradiated uranium have been found on the shore of the Solway Firth. In the early 1990s five such particles were discovered only 10 metres from the Chapelcross discharge pipe. The level of radiation from one of these particles was such that if it was in direct contact with the skin for 25 hours then the recognised safety limit for public exposure would be reached. BNFL said that they thought that the particles had been discharged in the 1970s.

In December 1998 there was a leak of radioactive tritium. In January 1999 BNFL discharged two batches of effluent, each consisting of 13,000 gallons, without first checking the level of radioactivity of the effluent. A formal warning was given to BNFL by SEPA. In September 1999 700 gallons of waste were spilled. As a result of this BNFL were fined 5,000 pounds in September 2000.

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Facilities in Chapelcross

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It was decided that the four Chapelcross reactors in Scotland are to be permanently closed down making Chapelcross the seventh station with Magnox reactors to be shutdown in the U.K. The closure comes six years earlier than the planned closure date of 2010 first announced in 1999.


British Nuclear Fuels brought the closing date for Chapelcross forward from 2008 to March 2005.
Chapelcross was last year at the centre of a safety scare when two dozen spent nuclear fuel rods were dropped 80 feet down a discharge chute during a routine defuelling operation. The accident happened during a refuelling operation for reactor three. A report into the accident blamed procedural and hardware deficiencies.
Since then both plants have had problems with "charge pans" which act as guides for refuelling and defuelling equipment.


On 5 July 2001 highly radioactive fuel rods were dropped several feet during the refuelling of a reactor at Chapelcross. 24 rods were involved in the accident, 12 of them dropped 80 feet and three of those were broken . Initially BNFL claimed that the rods only fell 2 feet. Because of the risk of fire carbon dioxide was pumped over the fallen fuel.
Two reactors were shut down and further investigations revealed a misaligned charge pan.


"During refuelling operations on Reactor 2, an irradiated fuel element failed to release from the grab (this is used to hold an element while it is withdrawn from a reactor). Routine methods were used to release the grab. However, the irradiated fuel element snagged during the operation and was lifted out of its shielding resulting in the operators on the pile cap being exposed to the intense radiation being emitted from the irradiated fuel element. Personnel responded quickly, and the radiological dose received by them was small.

The event revealed shortfalls in the safety of the refuelling operation and the licensee took the immediate step of halting all refuelling operations while it investigated the event and reviewed the safety of the equipment. The NII investigated the event and judged that it was due to inadequate design and operation of the equipment. The licensee has modified the equipment and procedures in accordance with the nuclear site licence requirements and NII has agreed to fuelling operations continuing.

The incident was classified as Level 1 on the International Nuclear Event Scale (INES)."


In summer UK's nuclear regulators allowed Chapelcross and its sister Calder Hall to operate for a further 10 years to a potential age of 50 years.


In 1967 there was a serious accident in number 2 reactor at Chapelcross. The reactor had just been refuelled when it was discovered that the gas flow through one of the fuel channels was mechanically blocked. The fudl in the channel melted and must have been hotter than 1100 degrees Celcius. A major disaster was averted but the reactor was shut down for 2 years for repairs.