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Schematic diagram of a Magnox nuclear reactor showing gas flow. The heat exchanger is outside the concrete radiation shielding. This represents an early Magnox design with a cylindrical, steel, pressure vessel.

Magnox is a now-obsolete type of nuclear power reactor, which was designed in the United Kingdom and was exported to other countries, both as a power plant and, when operated accordingly, as a producer of plutonium for nuclear weapons. The name magnox comes from the magnesium-aluminium alloy used to clad the fuel rods inside the reactor.

Wylfa Nuclear Generating Facility contains the world's last operating Magnox reactor.


  • General description 1
  • Economics 2
  • Safety 3
  • Reactors built 4
    • Derating to reduce corrosion 4.1
    • Extended operation 4.2
  • Magnox definitions 5
    • Magnox alloy 5.1
    • Magnox plants 5.2
  • Gas cooled reactors 6
  • Decommissioning 7
  • List of Magnox reactors in the UK 8
  • Magnox reactors exported from the UK 9
  • See also 10
  • References 11
  • External links 12

General description

An early design Magnox fuel rod

Magnox reactors are pressurised, carbon dioxide cooled, graphite moderated reactors using natural uranium (i.e., unenriched) as fuel and magnox alloy as fuel cladding. Boron-steel control rods were used. The design was continuously refined, and very few units are identical. Early reactors have steel pressure vessels, while later units (Oldbury and Wylfa) are of prestressed concrete; some are cylindrical in design, but most are spherical. Working pressure varies from 6.9 to 19.35 bar for the steel pressure vessels, and the two prestressed concrete designs operated at 24.8 and 27 bar.[1] No British construction company at the time was large enough to build all the power stations, so various competing consortia were involved, adding to the differences between the stations; for example nearly every power station used a different design of Magnox fuel element.[2]

On-load refuelling was considered to be an economically essential part of the design for the civilian Magnox power stations, to maximise power station availability by eliminating refuelling downtime. This was particularly important for Magnox as the unenriched fuel had a low burnup, requiring more frequent changes of fuel than enriched uranium reactors. However the complicated refuelling equipment proved to be less reliable than the reactor systems, and perhaps not advantageous overall.[3]


The first Magnox reactors at Calder Hall[4] were designed principally to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons.[5] The production of plutonium from uranium by irradiation in a pile generates large quantities of heat which must be disposed of, and so generating steam from this heat, which could be used in a turbine to generate electricity, or as process heat in the nearby Windscale works, was seen as a kind of "free" by-product of an essential process.

The Calder Hall reactors had low efficiency by today's standards, only 18.8%.[6]

The British government decided in 1957 that electricity generation by nuclear power would be promoted, and that there would be a building programme to achieve 5,000 to 6,000 MWe capacity by 1965, a quarter of UK's generating needs.[5] Although Sir John Cockcroft had advised the government that electricity generated by nuclear power would be more expensive than that from coal, the government decided that nuclear power stations as alternatives to coal-fired power stations would be useful to reduce the bargaining power of the coal miners' unions , and so decided to go ahead. In 1960 a government white paper scaled back the building programme to 3,000 MWe,[5] acknowledging that coal generation was 25% cheaper. A government statement to the House of Commons in 1963 stated that nuclear generation was more than twice as expensive as coal. The "plutonium credit" which assigned a value to the plutonium produced was used to improve the economic case,[7] although the operators of the power stations were never paid this credit.

Once removed from the reactor the used fuel elements are stored in cooling ponds (with the exception of Wylfa which has dry stores in a carbon dioxide atmosphere) where the decay heat is transferred to the pond water, and then removed by the pond water circulation, cooling and filtration system. The fact that fuel elements can only be stored for a limited period in water before the Magnox cladding deteriorates, and must therefore inevitably be reprocessed, added to the costs of the Magnox programme.[8]

Later reviews criticised the continuing development project by project instead of standardisation on the most economical design, and for persisting with the development of a reactor which achieved only two export orders.[9]

A retrospective evaluation of costs, using a low 5% discount rate on capital, estimated Magnox electricity costs were nearly 50% higher than coal power stations would have provided.[10]


The reactor buildings of Bradwell Magnox nuclear power station

The Magnox reactors were considered at the time to have a considerable degree of inherent safety because of their simple design, low power density, and gas coolant. Because of this they were not provided with secondary containment features. A safety design principle at the time was that of the "maximum credible accident", and the assumption was made that if the plant were designed to withstand that, then all other lesser but similar events would be encompassed. Loss of coolant accidents (at least those considered in the design) would not cause large-scale fuel failure as the Magnox cladding would retain the bulk of the radioactive material, assuming the reactor was rapidly shutdown (a SCRAM), because the decay heat could be removed by natural circulation of air. As the coolant is already a gas, explosive pressure buildup from boiling is not a risk, as happened in the catastrophic steam explosion at the Chernobyl accident. Failure of the reactor shutdown system to rapidly shut down the reactor, or failure of natural circulation, was not considered in the design. In 1967 Chapelcross experienced a fuel melt due to restricted gas flow in an individual channel and, although this was dealt with by the station crew without major incident, this event had not been designed or planned for, and the radioactivity released was greater than anticipated during the station design.

In the older steel pressure vessel design, boilers and gas ducting are outside the concrete biological shield. Consequently, this design emits a significant amount of direct gamma and neutron radiation, termed direct "shine", from the reactors. For example, the most exposed members of the public living near Dungeness Magnox reactor in 2002 received 0.56 mSv, over half the International Commission on Radiological Protection recommended maximum radiation dose limit for the public, from direct "shine" alone.[11] The doses from the Oldbury and Wylfa reactors, which have concrete pressure vessels which encapsulate the complete gas circuit, are much lower.

Reactors built

Sizewell A Magnox nuclear power station

In all, 11 power stations totalling 26 units were built in the United Kingdom where the design originated. In addition, one was exported to Tōkai in Japan[12] and another to Latina in Italy. North Korea also developed their own Magnox reactors, based on the UK design which was made public at an Atoms for Peace conference.

The first Magnox power station, Calder Hall, was the world's second nuclear power station (a power station in Obninsk, Russia started supplying the grid on 1 December 1954) to generate electrical power on an industrial scale.[4] First connection to the grid was on 27 August 1956, and the plant was officially opened by Queen Elizabeth II on 17 October 1956.[13] When the station closed on 31 March 2003, the first reactor had been in use for nearly 47 years.[14]

The first two stations (Calder Hall and Chapelcross) were originally owned by the UKAEA and primarily used in their early life to produce weapons-grade plutonium, with two fuel loads per year.[15] From 1964 they were mainly used on commercial fuel cycles and in April 1995 the UK Government announced that all production of plutonium for weapons purposes had ceased.[16]

The later and larger units were owned by CEGB and operated on commercial fuel cycles. However Hinkley Point A and two other stations were modified so that weapons-grade plutonium could be extracted for military purposes should the need arise.[17][18]

Derating to reduce corrosion

In early operation it was found that there was significant oxidation of mild steel components by the high temperature carbon dioxide coolant, requiring a reduction in operating temperature and power output. For example, the Latina reactor was derated in 1969 by 24%, from 210 MWe to 160 MWe, by the reduction of operating temperature from 390 to 360 °C.

Extended operation

As of Q1 2014, one Magnox reactor remains in operation; Wylfa. Wylfa had been due to close in 2010 but its operating licence was extended. The ONR in Q3 2011 reported[19] that reactor 2 at Wylfa would shut in April 2012, with reactor 1 continuing to operate until September 2014. On 25 April 2012 reactor 2 ceased generating, with fuel being transferred from reactor 2 to reactor 1. Magnox are seeking an extension to continue to generate until December 2015, pending the approval of a Periodic Safety Case Review.[20]

Wylfa is now scheduled to close at the end of December, the Safety Case having been accepted by the ONR.

Magnox definitions

Magnox alloy

Magnox is also the name of an alloy—mainly of magnesium with small amounts of aluminium and other metals—used in cladding unenriched uranium metal fuel with a non-oxidising covering to contain fission products. Magnox is short for Magnesium non-oxidising. This material has the advantage of a low neutron capture cross-section, but has two major disadvantages:

  • It limits the maximum temperature, and hence the thermal efficiency, of the plant.
  • It reacts with water, preventing long-term storage of spent fuel under water.

Magnox fuel incorporated cooling fins to provide maximum heat transfer despite low operating temperatures, making it expensive to produce. While the use of uranium metal rather than oxide made reprocessing more straightforward and therefore cheaper, the need to reprocess fuel a short time after removal from the reactor meant that the fission product hazard was severe. Expensive remote handling facilities were required to address this danger.

Magnox plants

The term magnox may also loosely refer to:

  • Three North Korean reactors, all based on the declassified blueprints of the Calder Hall Magnox reactors:
  • Nine UNGG power reactors built in France, all now shut down. These were carbon dioxide-cooled, graphite reactors with natural uranium metal fuel, very similar in design and purpose to the British Magnox reactors except that the fuel cladding was magnesium-zirconium alloy and that the bars were disposed horizontally (instead of vertically for Magnox).

Gas cooled reactors

The accepted term for all of these first-generation, carbon dioxide-cooled, graphite-moderated reactors, including the Magnox and UNGG, is GCR for Gas Cooled Reactor.

The Magnox was replaced in the British power station program by the Advanced gas-cooled reactor or AGR, which was derived from it. A key feature of the AGR was the replacement of magnox cladding to allow higher temperatures and greater thermal efficiency. Stainless steel cladding was adopted after many other alloys had been tried and rejected.


Chapelcross before the cooling towers were demolished in 2007

The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) is responsible for the decommissioning of the UK Magnox power plants, at an estimated cost of £12.6 billion. There is currently debate about whether a 25 or 100 year decommissioning strategy should be adopted. After 80 years short-lifetime radioactive material in the defueled core would have decayed to the point that human access to the reactor structure would be possible, easing dismantling work. A shorter decommissioning strategy would require a fully robotic core dismantling technique.[21]

In addition the Sellafield site which, amongst other activities, reprocessed spent Magnox fuel in its B205 plant, has an estimated decommissioning cost of £31.5 billion. Magnox fuel was produced at Springfields near Preston; estimated decommissioning cost is £371 million. The total cost of decommissioning Magnox activities is likely to exceed £20 billion, averaging about £2 billion per productive reactor site.

Calder Hall was opened in 1956 as the world’s first commercial nuclear power station, and is a significant part of the UK’s industrial heritage. The NDA is considering whether to preserve Calder Hall Reactor 1 as a museum site.

All the UK's Magnox Reactor Sites (apart from Calder Hall) are operated by Magnox Ltd, a Site Licence Company (SLC) of the NDA. Reactor Sites Management Company (RSMC) holds the contract to manage Magnox Ltd on behalf of the NDA. In 2007, RSMC was acquired by American nuclear fuel cycle service provider EnergySolutions from British Nuclear Fuels.[22]

On 1 October 2008, Magnox Electric Ltd separated into two nuclear licensed companies, Magnox North Ltd and Magnox South Ltd.[23]

Magnox North sites

  • Chapelcross
  • Hunterston A
  • Oldbury
  • Trawsfynydd
  • Wylfa

Magnox South sites

  • Berkeley
  • Bradwell
  • Dungeness
  • Hinkley Point A

In January 2011 Magnox North Ltd and Magnox South Ltd recombined as Magnox Ltd.[24]

List of Magnox reactors in the UK

Name Location Location (GeoHack) Number of units Production per unit Total production First grid connection Shut down
Calder Hall near Whitehaven, Cumbria 4 50 MWe 200 MWe 1956 2003
Chapelcross near Annan, Dumfries and Galloway 4 60 MWe 240 MWe 1959 2004
Berkeley Gloucestershire 2 138 MWe 276 MWe 1962 1989
Bradwell near Southminster, Essex 2 121 MWe 242 MWe 1962 2002
Hunterston "A" between West Kilbride and Fairlie North Ayrshire 2 180 MWe 360 MWe 1964 1990
Hinkley Point "A" near Bridgwater, Somerset 2 235 MWe 470 MWe 1965 1999
Trawsfynydd Gwynedd 2 195 MWe 390 MWe 1965 1991
Dungeness "A" Kent 2 219 MWe 438 MWe 1966 2006
Sizewell "A" near Leiston, Suffolk 2 210 MWe 420 MWe 1966 2006
Oldbury near Thornbury, South Gloucestershire 2 217 MWe 434 MWe 1968 2012
Wylfa Anglesey 2 490 MWe 980 MWe 1971 2015 (Planned)

Magnox reactors exported from the UK

Name Location Number of units Production per unit Total production First grid connection Shut down
Latina Italy 1 160 MWe 320 MWe 1963 1987 following Italian referendum on nuclear power
Tokai Mura Japan 1 166 MWe 166 MWe 1966 1998

See also


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External links

  • Magnox Electric
  • SolutionsEnergy
  • Nuclear Sites Stakeholder Information - Overview of each Magnox power station, provided by British Nuclear Group
  • Magnox Safety Reviews, September 2000, HSE Nuclear Installations Inspectorate
  • Magnox Electric plc’s strategy for decommissioning its nuclear licensed sites, February 2002, HSE Nuclear Installations Inspectorate
  • The decommissioning of commercial magnox gas cooled reactor power stations in the United Kingdom, G. Holt, Magnox Electric, IAEA meeting paper, 8–10 September 1997
  • Operating experience with the Latina Magnox reactor, 21–23 September 1988, Ente Nazionale per l'Energia Electrica
  • Review of ageing processes and their influence on Safety and Performance at Wylfa Nuclear Power Station, John Large, 14 March 2001 - includes detailed diagrams
  • Magnox Fuel Element Design - Atomic Energy Insights
  • Sellafield Magnox cooling ponds cleanup job commences - Nuclear Engineering International
  • A ponderous hazard - Nuclear Engineering International
  • British Nuclear Group image asset library - A large collection of interior and exterior photographs of all the Magnox power stations in the UK.
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