11 Nov 2013

Could plutonium be the key to our salvation?

It’s something I’ve longed to see all my adult life. An element that was once synonymous with power – superpower in fact.

An element that produced the most ghastly of all mankind’s creations.

Yet when I first came face-to-face with plutonium at the National Nuclear Laboratory at Sellafield in Cumbria, I have to admit to being quite underwhelmed.

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At Sellafield plutonium is stored in its oxide form.

It’s only a few centimetres from my nose (contained withing a perspex “glove box” to prevent me from breathing in the highly radiotoxic metal) and it looks as exciting as brick dust.

And this element that 50 years ago meant so much is now one of Britain’s most genuinely toxic assets.

“Doing nothing very expensively,” according to Adrian Simper, director of strategy at the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority.

There is currently 120 tonnes of plutonium stored at Sellafield – the largest civilian stockpile of the stuff in the world.

That much weapons grade plutonium could make 30,000 Hiroshima bombs.

Read more: Cumbria rejects radioactive waste disposal programme

If it fell into the wrong hands it would be the perfect material for making a terrorist “dirty bomb”.

On top of that while it’s not terribly radioactive, if inhaled it is extremely toxic because it accumulates in the body.

It’s why only a handful of the 10 thousand people who work at Sellafield have any access to the building where it is stored and why the site is one of the most secure in Britain.

It’s also why, for decades, the saying at Sellafield and in Whitehall has been “don’t mention the P-word.”

To many people plutonium is the most deadly substance known to man and should be put well beyond harms way — rendered useless by sealing it in glass.

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But there is a consensus growing among other environmentalists that plutonium could be the key to our salvation.

If it were used as a nuclear fuel for a new fleet of “fast-breeder” reactors, there’s enough of it at Sellafield to could meet Britain’s current electricity demand for 500 years.

If done right that could make a very meaningful contribution to Britain’s low-carbon energy future.

That’s the argument made in a new campaigning film about to be released in the UK that makes the argument for a wholesale return to nuclear power.

Read more: Sellafield autopsies: bodies were removed illegally

Pandora’s Promise” argues the case for using fast breeder reactors to burn nuclear waste like plutonium and other spent nuclear fuels could help fuel our planet without carbon emissions – and use up thousands of tonnes of potentially hazardous waste.

As a policy it makes sense. Especially in Britain which is desperate for a long-term solution to high electricity bills and fuel security.

Because just storing the plutonium at Sellafield costs the taxpayer around £80m a year, it could also help fund the cripplingly expensive NDA.

The agency currently consumes two thirds of DECC’s annual budget looking after the clean-up of old nuclear sites at Sellafield and elsewhere.

Read more: Scientist criticises plan for nuclear waste site in Cumbria

The government has indicated it wants to put the plutonium to good use. Their current plans, though, call for it to be mixed into something called MOX fuel and burned in old-fashioned reactor designs that create more waste.

A report expected this autumn has been delayed and Channel 4 News now understands plutonium has been put off the coalition agenda.

A next generation of plutonium burning nuclear reactors have the potential to be the most cost-effective, harm-reducing, low carbon source of energy we’ve ever known.

However costly failures of the past (like the THORP reprocessing plants at Sellafield) would make any government balk at adopting a new nuclear strategy.

Follow @tomclarkec4 on Twitter.