What about plutonium?

One major part of the UK’s nuclear wastes that would not be dealt with by a deep disposal facility is the 112 tonnes of plutonium largely left over from the UK’s nuclear and nuclear weapons programmes of the ‘50s and ‘60s.

The government’s current plan is to build a new mixed oxide (MOX) fuel manufacturing plant to process the waste despite there being few customers for such fuel and the UK’s existing plant having closed due to technical problems (ENDS Report 443, p 42).

An interesting alternative is being put forward by GE Hitachi, which wants to build a sodium-cooled fast reactor called PRISM to process the plutonium and generate 600 megawatts of power at the same time. The plutonium wastes produced would not be usable for weapons.

The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority is evaluating the offer.

Eric Loewen, GE Hitachi’s chief engineer, said the principal benefit of the firms approach is that it would generate energy while making plutonium stocks safe. This means it would be cheaper than MOX.

The plant could eventually be fitted with a recycling plant so it could keep reusing the plutonium to generate power and produce little waste.

Both DECC and the NDA have previously dismissed the idea of a fast reactor because none have been built on a commercial scale.

However, Loewen dismisses such concerns. “We don’t need to do any more research. There are some technical demonstrations that would be needed, which I’d have to do for licensing, but that happens with any plant.” The firm had helped run a pilot reactor in the US for 30 years before it was closed in the 1990s due to Bill Clinton’s anti-nuclear stance.

That demonstration plant was 20 megawatts size and Loewen does not see scaling-up as a challenge.

Firms in India, China and Russia are also looking to build fast reactors.

The company envisions licensing would take five years, with another five years build time. The recycling plant could be added at a later date.

GE Hitachi’s offer should certainly be taken seriously. In October, Hitachi alone bought the Horizon nuclear programme from RWE Npower and Eon to build new nuclear plants at Oldbury in Gloucestershire and Wylfa on Anglesey (ENDS Report 447, pp 14-15).

DECC says this deal came with no ties for the government to consider PRISM. But that has been the informal result.

Loewen says GE Hitachi’s initial commercial approach for PRISM was based on a price per kilogram of plutonium disposed. Other options are being considered.

Return to main feature Digging deep to bury nuclear's problems

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