UK moves a step closer to nuclear waste solution

Don’t miss the Mark Lynas post regarding the UK Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) consideration of the GE Hitachi PRISM proposal.

Something potentially rather interesting is happening deep within the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA), the branch of the UK government responsible for dealing with nuclear waste overall and the country’s 100-tonne plutonium stockpile in particular.


Luckily the civil servants at the NDA, and their cousins over at DECC, the Department for Energy and Climate Change, are not stupid. They know a MOX plant will never actually be built, and that Areva has wasted billions already on what is essentially obsolete technology. That’s bad for Areva, and therefore the French taxpayer, but isn’t our problem. Hence the very intriguing spin put on the NDA statement, which is that the authority is “seeking proposals on potential alternative approaches for managing the UK’s plutonium stocks” even as it simultaneously “progresses its preferred policy of converting the material into mixed oxide fuel”.

In other words, the NDA is looking for a way out of the MOX dead-end before the policy process grinds so far forward that they find themselves too politically committed. No doubt Areva is knocking loudly on the NDA’s door and vociferously lobbying anyone who will listen, but the fact this they have backed the wrong horse and will lose big-time – because there is a far better option already on the table. That – as this World Nuclear News piece suggests – is GE’s PRISM fast reactor concept.

Last month I had a meeting with some of GE’s top people, including the chief engineer for the PRISM – and I have to say I found their strategy highly compelling. The PRISM is a metal-fuelled fast reactor cooled by molten sodium. It operates at atmospheric pressure – meaning no expensive pressure vessel – and the characteristics of the fuel and the molten-sodium coolant (which conducts heat away from the core 90 times more effectively than water) make it fully passively-safe. (An early version, called the Experimental Breeder Reactor, was subjected to a loss-of-coolant flow experiment in 1986 – it duly shut itself down with no outside intervention.)

Perhaps more importantly, fast reactors can burn up all the energy in the uranium and plutonium fuel, whilst utilising MOX only increases the energy use from 0.6% to 0.8%. Because of this, as the Guardian recently reported, if all the UK’s spent fuel, depleted uranium and plutonium stockpiles are combined, they include enough energy to run the country for 500 years at current electricity use rates – without the need to mine another scrap of uranium, and without the emission of a single tonne of CO2. (Greenpeace is vociferously opposed, despite its supposed great concern for global warming, no doubt because a solution to nuclear waste leaves it high and dry after 35 years of misguided anti-nuclear activism.)

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