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Plutonium: How Nuclear Power’s Dream Fuel Became a Nightmare. 

The history of nuclear power’s imagined future: Plutonium’s journey from asset to waste, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, By William Walker, September 7, 2021 

Bill Gates is deluded in believing that the plutonium-fuelled, sodium-cooled, “Versatile Power Reactor” in which his company Terrapower is involved, has a commercial future.[18] His support is also unwelcome insofar as it helps to perpetuate the myth that plutonium is a valuable fuel, posing acceptable risks to public safety and international security. Reprocessing is a waste-producing, not an asset-creating, technology. It adds cost rather than value. It merits no future when seen in this way.

‘ ………..Plutonium’s history  and its legacies are the subject of a recent book by Frank von Hippel, Masafumi Takubo and Jungmin Kang.[1] Plutonium: How Nuclear Power’s Dream Fuel Became a Nightmare. It is an impressive study of technological struggle and ultimate failure, and of plutonium’s journey from regard as a vital energy asset to an eternally troublesome waste

Toward heaven or hell?  The conflict over plutonium’s future…………..

From creation of a future to preservation of the present

Construction of the British and French reprocessing plants at Sellafield and Cap de la Hague proceeded throughout the 1980s.[6] Their primary justification—preparing for the introduction of fast breeder reactors—had lost all credibility by the time of their completion. The German, British and French breeder programs had been cut back, soon to be abandoned, and in 1988 Germany cancelled plans to build its own bulk reprocessing plant at Wackersorf. Although Japan’s confidence in its fast breeder reactor program also waned, it was kept alive to avoid disrupting construction of the reprocessing plant at Rokkasho-mura.

Faced by the plutonium economy’s demise, reprocessing was re-purposed by its supporters to provide the industry and its governmental backers with reason not to do the obvious—abandon ship. Creating an essential future was replaced by a rationale designed to preserve and activate the newly established reprocessing infrastructures. ……. plutonium’s energy value could be realised through its replacement of fissile uranium in “mixed-oxide fuels” for use in existing thermal reactors………

Thirty years after the Euro-Japanese reprocessing/recycling system’s launch, the experiment can only be judged a failure. The reasons are set out in persuasive detail in von Hippel, Takubo and Kang’s book. It is a system undergoing irreversible contraction after a long struggle, involving heavy expenditure and many troubles. Germany and the UK have already exited, the UK shutting its THORP reprocessing plant in 2018 and delaying its Magnox reprocessing plant’s closure only because of the coronavirus pandemic.[9] Instead, its Nuclear Decommissioning Authority has been given the costly (more than $138 billion) and long-lasting (more than 100 years) task of returning Sellafield and Dounreay to “green-field sites.”

Japan’s engagement with reprocessing and plutonium recycling was already deeply troubled before the Fukushima accident closed reactors: The Rokkasho-mura reprocessing plant was operating only fitfully, MOX recycling was not happening, and plutonium separated from Japanese spent fuels in France and the UK was marooned there, probably indefinitely, by inability to manage its return in MOX fuel (cutting a very long story short).[10] The declared intention to soldier on with bulk reprocessing seems increasingly bizarre and is surely unsustainable. ……….

France’s national utility EDF, saddled with enormous debts, is striving to reduce its exposure to reprocessing.  It is symptomatic that no spent fuel discharged from EDF-owned and -operated reactors in the UK, including those under construction at Hinkley Point, will be reprocessed………

The move away from reprocessing is being accompanied by a transition towards dry-cask storage of spent fuels. It entails their removal from water pools at reactors after a few years’ cooling and their insertion in large concrete or stainless steel containers, ………

 Reprocessing continues in India and Russia, if fitfully, where fast reactor programmes are still being funded. Japan’s commitment remains. ………

There is particular concern about China’s engagement with reprocessing and its dual civil and military purposes…………

……………. Separated plutonium is a waste

The authors remind readers of the persistent dangers that reprocessing poses to public safety and international security: the risks of accident and exposure to radiation, the proliferation of weapons, the possibility of diversion into nuclear terrorism, and the undesirable complication of radioactive waste disposal. “In our view, it is time to ban the separation of plutonium for any purpose” (their italics) is their concluding sentence. This may be the case, but the US and other governments are unlikely to respond to their call. They have so much else to contend with—climate change, pandemics, economic distress, arms racing on a long list—leaving a ban on plutonium separation low in their priorities. They are also all too aware of past failures to institute such bans,  whether in commercial or military domains, from the Carter Policy in the 1970s to the stalled Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty in the 1990s and subsequently.

Another conclusion cries out to be drawn from this book. Plutonium’s separation and usage for energy purposes was an experiment that can now decisively be pronounced a failure.  Experience has shown that separated civil plutonium is a waste. The book’s first of many figures, reproduced below,  is the most telling. Up to the mid-1980s, the global stock of separated plutonium was predominately military and held in warheads, peaking at around 200 tons. It now exceeds 500 tons. The increase is due to the ballooning of civil stocks as plutonium’s separation has outstripped consumption. The global stock of separated plutonium now includes material extracted from the post-Cold War dismantlement of Russian and US nuclear warheads that is also effectively a waste.[16]

Civil plutonium is therefore not an asset, it is not “surplus to requirement;” it is a waste.  This is the message that needs to be proclaimed and acknowledged, especially by governments, utilities, and industries desiring that nuclear power have a solid future and make a contribution to the avoidance of global warming. For reasons set out in von Hippel’s recent article in the Bulletin, Bill Gates is deluded in believing that the plutonium-fuelled, sodium-cooled, “Versatile Power Reactor” in which his company Terrapower is involved, has a commercial future.[18] His support is also unwelcome insofar as it helps to perpetuate the myth that plutonium is a valuable fuel, posing acceptable risks to public safety and international security. Reprocessing is a waste-producing, not an asset-creating, technology. It adds cost rather than value. It merits no future when seen in this way.

Even if all civil reprocessing ceased tomorrow, the experiment would have bequeathed the onerous task of guarding and disposing of over 300 tons of plutonium waste, and considerably more when US and Russia’s military excess is added in. Proposals come and go.  Burn it in specially designed reactors? Blend it with other radioactive wastes? Bury it underground after some form of immobilization? Send it into space? All options are costly and hard to implement. Lacking ready solutions, most plutonium waste will probably remain in store above ground for decades to come, risking neglect. How to render this dangerous waste eternally safe and secure is now the question.     Extensive References . https://thebulletin.org/premium/2021-09/the-history-of-nuclear-powers-imagined-future-plutoniums-journey-from-asset-to-waste/?utm_source=Newsletter&utm_medium=Email&utm_campaign=ThursdayNewsletter09272021&utm_content=NuclearRisk_HistoryOfNuclearPowersImagined_09102021


September 28, 2021 - Posted by | - plutonium, 2 WORLD, Reference

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