It’s with a grave sense of relief that the news reported by the Guardian in the UK has a competitive atmosphere underway for disposing of plutonium in used reactor fuel.

The UK government is in the midst of an opportunity.  They have choices for the plutonium that doesn’t include building more nuclear weapons.  One choice is to simply stockpile it and run the risks.  Then there are better choices.

What drove the Guardians story is that the U.S. firm General Electric set out proposals yesterday to build a new nuclear reactor at Sellafield that would convert the UK’s stockpile of radioactive plutonium into electricity.

Disused Plutonium Reactor In the UK From the Guardian. Click image for the largest view.

According to GE the multibillion pound project would take plutonium – the residue from the UK’s nuclear power plants – and use it as fuel for a 600MW reactor that could provide power for 750,000 homes.  GE’s “Prism” reactor has been in use for more than 30 years in the US, but if the new plant goes ahead it would be the first such plant in private operation outside the US.

Already on the table are converting the plutonium for use in a thorium reactor or building a new mixed oxide fuel (‘mox’) processing plant.

The Guardian has published a background piece on thorium fueled reactors, but so far what ideas are on the government’s table aren’t being discussed.  The potential choices with thorium are broad from water-cooled reactors to liquid fluoride and on to the Rubbia method running sub critical with an accelerator keeping the reaction underway.

A certainty is the UK can choose, as well as everyone else, but the government is underway on looking at the choices.  With no decision or preference out the competition is underway.  Sifting through the choices with the competitors varied resources is going to be quite a challenge.  GE has a huge capital and personnel advantage.

With an eye towards getting the cost of government under control and a £2 billion problem with storage, finding that plutonium has a value to mitigate cost is a good place to look.  Some people in the government want the plutonium to be classed as an asset rather than a liability.

The game is on though.  The Guardian is reporting that Sir David King, former chief scientific adviser, urged ministers earlier this year to find a use for the stockpile. A government decision is expected “shortly”, but no firm date has yet been set.  That’s all to the good, as many more thorium choices could get on the table as news of the opportunity gets around.

The Guardian has consulted with nuclear experts who are skeptical of GE’s proposals, pointing out that the company had provided little data on which to assess its credibility as a solution to the UK’s plutonium stockpile, and that government-sponsored research into the available options had suggested that a mixed oxide plant was the best use.

That implied there could be some bias in the local field.  Lets hope that asset idea drives some more time for more thought.

GE’s Prism reactor system’s fuel comes by taking the existing plutonium oxide powder in cans, and converting it to metal. That metal is in turn converted into an alloy and mixed with uranium and zirconium, which is put into a fuel bundle and used in a fission reactor. After the fuel is spent, the waste product that is left would be safer than plutonium in the form in which the UK stores it today, because it would be less liable to be used in weapons and would be more easily stored, the company said.

It isn’t clear how much energy is extracted from the plutonium, the more extracted the less dangerous the plutonium.

Eric Loewen, chief engineer on the Prism project said, “The waste is much the same as that produced by new light water reactors.”  That’s an improvement, but isn’t getting much value out of the asset.

GE has another bait though, not saying how much the plant would be likely to cost, or how much profit it could make, but said the investment would be “multibillion” if it went ahead. There would be a lot of jobs involved as well.

Intuition suggests that thorium solutions will offer the best asset use.  Thorium reactors bring to the table lots of investment, with an expectation that the watt-hours would be cheaper for consumers, plenty of jobs, and a healthier economy with less energy expense drag.  Plus the thorium based spent fuel would be far less problematic than the competition, answering the premise problem directly and effectively.

The news is that a government is finally looking at used fission reactor fuel with some sense.  There is a whole lot of energy wasting away in used nuclear fuel.  Not really very fast, but bleeding off into pools of water nonetheless.

There’s roughly 19 times as much energy left to use from the spent fuel as all the energy already taken, it’s an asset and a big one – indeed.


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