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.

18 reader comments

  1. Philip Edwards says:

    Tom,

    Please don’t tell me you didn’t know nuclear plants have always been bomb-making factories.

    Tony Benn told us that a generation ago.

    And as former Minister for Technology, he should know.

    And this is what Blair and Cameron have reintroduced – the same people who are creating the conditions for an attack on Iran. Meanwhile, Israel continues to produce the same mad weapons.

    As Mikhail Gorbachev once said: “Let’s get rid of them all.” But do you think the warmongering nutters in the Pentagon and Whitehall will pay any more attention now than they did when the Russian first said it?…….Answers on a postcard……..

    1. Trooper_ID says:

      No Phil, they have not been bomb making factories. They have been electricity producers for the civilian National Grid. A by product of the fission process that generates the electricity is ‘stuff’ suitable to be used in bombs (but unsuitable for power generation). Those bombs you mentioned would in fact be manufactured elsewhere, and not in the civilian nuclear power stations, something that Tony Benn also confirmed several years ago.

  2. Philip says:

    As usual we’ll faff around so long that eventually it’ll get done in the UK by an overseas cartel at a much higher price & with most of the cash benefits going overseas.

  3. Barney Stevenson says:

    Interesting article. But I found it very hard to read because, with one exception, you start a new paragraph every sentence.

    1. Ray says:

      Paper is free on-line.

  4. Ray says:

    That cannot be too bad, 500 years of Plutonium, and 500 years of Coal. So there are no energy problems. However, we cannot build the power stations to create the energy.

    Then again, we have a burgeoning population, decreasing land area, and with world economic and resources competition we will not be able to afford to import food we need. The UK can at most feed one quarter of its population.

  5. GreensNoNukes says:

    No. It is far more likely to be the cause of our undoing.

    The majority of all the world’s Plutonium is produced by mankind in Nuclear facilities. It is incredibly rare in nature. I wonder why? Plutonium is not meant for our use or this earth. Leave it underground and invest in the unlimited supply of clean renewables as we could have been doing in the 60 years learning Nuclear is a price not worth paying.

    Why as the Sellafield site in operation and producing nothing but weapons grade Plutonium for years before it gave a single megawatt of power to the National Grid?

    Why is it costing £67 Billion to “clean up” the facility? Fast Breed Reactors are very costly and inefficient. Why use Plutonium as fuel? Isn’t Uranium supposed to be cheap and green? (unless you’re an aborigines living near one of the massive mines that litter the Australian outback)

    When will we stop messing around with a branch of science that promises “salvation” but managed to outwit even the smartest of us time and time again?

    Doomsday Clock strikes five to Midnight….

  6. Robin Gould says:

    Understanding of nuclear technology and the atom, is vastly influenced by the public through disaster happenings. It was proven by the Oak Ridge team of scientists in the 1960-70’s how we can harness nuclear technology in a clean and non proliferating manner. via the Molten Salt Reactor (MSR) fuelled with the abundant element Thorium. We can even use the vast store of spent Uranium fuel, to initiate small scale Thorium reactors into early service and start tackling the climate change problem. As a news service, Channel 4 could do a lot to discourage the false reporting about nuclear technology. More information is available via the Institute for Thorium Energy Organisation (ITheo.org) or at info@the-weinberg-foundation.org.

    1. Andrew Dundas says:

      Thanks Robin for your positive & helpful response.

  7. Steven says:

    For those interested I’d strongly suggest doing some research on LFTR – Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors.

    In short, they run on nuclear waste – seriously, pretty much anything from decommissioned warheads, to plutonium waste products of current generation/model reactors, to depleted uranium rounds and pretty much any transuranic in-between.

    Run out of old nukes and tank-busting shells to burn? Fine, thorium itself is as common as lead, by and large. It’s everywhere.

    The fuel cycle is – effectively – fully recyclable. You run a cycle, you separate the spent fuel from the salt, you then reintegrate it with more salt and fuel – and it burns again.

    The half life of the waste if far shorter, meaning 300 years till it can be safely pulled out of a 300ft concrete shaft in the ground – not 20,000 years.

    You can also use the heat of the reaction to do fun things like desalinate seawater, then take that water and crack hydrogen from it….

    The problem with LFTR (and other molten salt reactors) is that back when they were being researched in anger – over 40 years ago, before the CND and Green elements (and other ‘perfect world’ fantasists – sorry, but that’s what it boils down to) started getting serious political influence – it was generally agreed that light water reactors were seen as being cheaper, easier to run and more mature than the experimental MSRs, and so they got built first.

    MSRs aren’t without their problems, but compared to LWRs – and hell, compared to fossil fuels and every renewable in their current, and likely near future state – none of the problems are truly showstoppers.

    It’s not a massive shock that China are looking at this seriously – they have massive thorium resources (as does everyone, frankly), a need for a massive emerging middle class to power their middle class lifestyles, and they have the money to do it.

    Have a read – it’s a bit heavy going – and it’s wikipedia (spits) but it’s a good starting point for further research, should you be of ilk to appreciate some physics:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liquid_fluoride_thorium_reactor

    And besides, it’s nuclear physics – anyone who says nuclear physics isn’t cool is a numpty.

    Steven

  8. Andrew Dundas says:

    To avoid continued global warming, we MUST have technological solutions. Relying mostly upon reduced energy consumption and low methane emissions will come too late.
    There are no prospective new technologies that are risk free. None is perfect.
    We should allocate funds for experiments with developing uses of plutonium, thorium and other elements to find technologies that can provide energy without or with fewer emissions that warm up our planet. Over time, we’ll develop solutions, but in the meantime compromises are critical.

    Unpleasant choices will have to be made and not obstruct progress up our learning curve.

  9. Douglas Sinclair says:

    Space agencies are looking deperately for plutonium for deep-space probes.

    1. Rainer Klute says:

      Space agencies need Plutonium-238, an isotope which makes nice fuel for space probes. This is very different from Plutonium-239, the isotope we are usually talking about.

  10. Robert Taggart says:

    Sounds too good to be true. But, if it can help to light-up Blighty without ‘lighting-up’ Blighty – go for it.
    Oh… Jonny – nothing wrong with pragmatism !

  11. Tom Clements says:

    In the US, contractor interest in the GE PRISM fast reactor (son of IFR), appears to be in large part stimulated by a desire by certain special interests to start reprocessing spent fuel in order to remove weapons-usable plutonium. This could imply that the same grave, costly mistake that the UK and Europe made with reprocessing could be repeated in the US – looking for a reason to justify reprocessing when there was none. There is no clamoring here in the US for this reactor, the push is by those who could possibly make money off government R&D and reprocessing, in my opinion. I live near the US Department of Energy’s Savannah River Site, which has staked its future on non-existent “small modular reactors” but that’s not going anywhere as the US DOE has said it won’t pay for SMR construction.

  12. Rainer Klute says:

    GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy made an offer to the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) to process the Plutonium with two of their PRISM reactors. They are sodium-cooled fast reactors and can use Pu (or spent nuclear fuel) as a fuel. See http://www.marklynas.org/2012/07/worlds-first-nuclear-waste-burning-prism-reactor-moves-a-step-closer-in-the-uk/ for more info. Still waiting for the NDA to make a decision!

  13. Neil craig says:

    Nuclear is, by orders of magnitude, the safest way to generate power. C4 knows that but you would never learn it from their reporting.

    Around 90% of the cost of every electricity bill is government parasitism. Every politician and “science” journalist knows that.

    Which means, by definition, every single honest politician and journalist has publicly acknowledged it.

    But only every single honest one. The corrupt totalitarian fascist thieves, who use false scare stories to retain power keep lying.

    1. Mark Aboff says:

      Its pretty bizarre to call claim nuclear power is the “safest way to generate power”. Have you ever heard of a thing called radiation? Do you know one particle of plutonium guarantees cancer? Have you ever heard of Fukushima? It only takes one large accident to create a cataclysm that affects millions of people. They were ready to evacuate Tokyo (city of 30,000,000 after the 3/11 Fukushima triple meltdown).

      Last I checked an accident at a solar plant or wind farm won’t give a million people cancer, won’t required 10s of millions to be evacuated, nor are they capable of rendering continents uninhabitable. It is insane to assume that kind of risk to humanity just to create steam. What happens if the power gets knocked out for a couple weeks…or months? Will that plutonium at Sellafield turn into a radioactive bonfire that sterilized Europe and contaminated the globe. Pretty much.

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