Joint Research Centre - European Commission

The European Commission's in-house science service
European Commission

Nuclear safeguards

Measuring uranium / plutonium samples on a Multi-collector-ICPMS (inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry)© EC (2009)

Safeguarding the reprocessing of spent fuel


On 15 June, the JRC Institute for Transuranium Elements, the Directorate-General for Energy and the International Atomic Energy Agency celebrated the 10th anniversary of the On Site Laboratories at the nuclear reprocessing plants of Sellafield (UK) and La Hague (France).

The JRC operates the On Site Laboratories at reprocessing plants in the nuclear sites of Sellafield and La Hague to analyse samples of spent fuel in situ. The throughput of these plants represents 80% of the world's reprocessed spent nuclear fuel, which is verified by European Commission inspectors and supported by JRC scientists in order to assure its compliance with nuclear safeguards. Thanks to its expertise in this field, the JRC was involved in the set up of the only other similar facility in the world which is located (outside the EU) in Rokkasho (Japan). In addition, the JRC also provides training to Euratom and the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) safeguards inspectors.

From the 2000 tons of spent fuel which are reprocessed every year in Sellafield and La Hague — equivalent to the consumption of 70 reactors — the JRC's Institute for Transuranium Elements (JRC-ITU) performs on average 800 sample analyses per year, checking both input and output. Following these tests, Euratom inspectors from the Commission's Directorate General for Energy evaluate the results to assure that the nuclear material is only used for declared, peaceful purposes.

The set up of the On Site Laboratories at the Sellafield and La Hague reprocessing plants 10 years ago has drastically reduced the transport of radioactive samples. The laboratories at these two largest European reprocessing plants were set up by the  JRC-ITU and the Euratom Safeguards office which was in charge of their design and installation. The inauguration took place on 13 October 1999 in Sellafield and on 6 June 2000 in La Hague. Since then, the On Site Laboratories have been operated by  JRC-ITU personnel on behalf of the European Commission's Directorate-General for Energy.

Before the construction of the On Site Laboratories, this approach required that a large number of samples be transported to JRC-ITU for analysis. The need to draw timely verification conclusions, the high related cost and logistical difficulties encountered to organise the sample transports led to a revised approach: the analysis of nuclear materials directly on the production site.