Environment (Deep End)

I’ve got some good news and some bad news.

The good news is that Britain is sitting on a large amount of a very valuable resource. There are other countries who would love to get their hands on some – and are willing to spend a lot of money in order to do so.

The bad news is that it’s not gold or platinum we’re talking about here, but something rather nasty. David Biello of Scientific American has the details:

“The U.K. has nearly 100 metric tons of plutonium—dubbed ‘the element from hell’ by some—that it doesn’t know what to do with. The island nation does not need the potent powder to construct more nuclear weapons, and spends billions of British pounds to ensure that others don’t steal it for that purpose. The unstable element, which will remain radioactive for millennia, is the residue of ill-fated efforts to recycle used nuclear fuel.”

You may remember that we tried to get rid of our plutonium before, by using it as fuel in a ‘fast’ reactor. It didn’t really work out:

“…the U.K. has a poor record in the past with its own experimental fast reactor designs—the Dounreay Fast Reactor and the Prototype Fast Reactor—including multiple sodium leaks. Dounreay also suffered an explosion at its dumping ground for used sodium coolant that may have contributed to radioactive particles from spent fuel turning up on nearby beaches. The Dounreay and Prototype cleanup and decommissioning continue today, despite both having been shut down for decades.”

A tad unreliable, those experimental nuclear reactors!

Obviously, we won’t be making that mistake again – instead it looks like we’ll be asking the Americans and Japanese to make it for us:

“The U.K. is considering a plan to build two of General Electric’s PRISM fast reactors, the latest in a series of fast-reactor designs that for several decades have attempted with mixed success to handle plutonium and other radioactive waste from nuclear power. The idea remains that fast reactors, which get their name because the neutrons that initiate fission in the reactor are zipping about faster than those in a conventional reactor, could offer a speedy solution to cleaning some nasty nuclear waste, which fissions better with fast neutrons, while also providing electricity as a by-product.”

There will be those who worry about the safety implications of building a new kind of nuclear power station and feeding it with something as dangerous as plutonium. But, don’t worry, it’s all in Japanese hands and those guys really know what they’re doing!

In any case, after so many attempts by so many countries to make the fast reactor concept work, someone is bound to get it right sooner or later:

“France had one for awhile, too, but it has since been shut down due to difficulty operating the plant as designed. In fact, most such fast reactors have proved difficult to run reliably. ‘At one time or another, [fast reactors] were a priority program in the U.S., Japan, France, Germany, Italy and Russia,’ notes physicist Thomas Cochran of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group. ‘They were largely failures in all those places and in two nuclear navies, so one should think twice before trying it again.’”

Admittedly, fast reactors are on the pricey side – in fact, they’re even more expensive than the conventional reactors we’re currently buying on tick from the French. Still, just think of all that extra off balance sheet debt we can dump on our grandkids!

It’s a bit like the PFI, only with added radiation.

4 comments for: Nuclear power: The gift that keeps on taking

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