Friday, February 03, 2012


The UK has a problem: it has too much nuclear waste. Not only is this an environmental risk; it contains plutonium, the essential ingredient for really big nuclear weapons, making it a proliferation risk as well. Fortunately the nuclear industry has a solution: burn the waste in their new fast-breeder reactors!

The reactor is a fixed small size, producing around 311MW of power – equivalent to 100 large wind turbines running non-stop or a quarter of a conventional nuclear plant. The reactor core is submerged in a pool of liquid sodium, which acts as a coolant, transferring the heat to the turbines where electricity is generated. Designers say that passive safety features ensure the reactor won't go into meltdown if its power source is cut off, which is what happened in last year's accident at Fukushima, Japan.

In the proposal currently under discussion, a pair of Prism reactors would be installed at Sellafield and optimised to consume the plutonium stockpile as quickly as possible. If, however, the government decided to prioritise low-carbon power generation rather than rapid waste disposal, a larger number of Prism reactors could theoretically be combined with a fuel recycling system to extract as much electricity as possible from the plutonium and depleted uranium.

According to figures calculated for the Guardian by the American writer and fast reactor advocate Tom Blees, this alternative approach could – given a large enough number of reactors – produce enough low-carbon electricity from Britain's waste stockpile to supply the UK at current rates of demand for more than 500 years.

Unmentioned in the article is how it gets that waste to last so long: because the reactor in question is a fast breeder - meaning that it makes plutonium. In other words, the nuclear industry's "solution" to Too Much Plutonium is to make more of it. In reactors cooled by liquid sodium, meaning they explode at the first drop of water.

In the wake of Fukushima, and with governments hysterical about the risks of dirty bombs and proliferation, I don't think the UK people will buy that deal. The problem is that (thanks to an unfair electoral system) the UK government doesn't think it has to listen to them...