Nuclear vs Nuclear vs Nuclear

We can’t wish nuclear waste away: we must choose one of three options for dealing with it.

By George Monbiot. Published on the Guardian’s website, 2nd February 2012

Duncan Clark’s article in the Guardian today should cause even the most determined anti-nuclear campaigner to think long and hard about the choices that confront us. He reveals that David McKay, chief scientific adviser to the government’s energy department and author of Sustainable Energy: Without the Hot Air, has endorsed a remarkable estimate. The UK’s stockpile of nuclear waste could be used to generate enough low-carbon energy to run this country for 500 years.

If the material we have seen until now as waste is instead seen as fuel, it has the potential to solve three problems at once: the UK’s contribution to climate change, possible future energy shortfalls and a significant component of the massive bill – and massive headache – associated with cleaning up the current nuclear mess.

The technology with the potential to solve these problems is the fast reactor, ideally the integral fast reactor (IFR), about which I wrote in December. It exploits the fact that conventional nuclear power plants use just 0.6% of the energy contained in the uranium that fuels them. IFRs, once loaded with nuclear waste, can, in principle, keep recycling it until only a small fraction remains, producing energy as they do so.

The remaining waste is both unusable for anyone who might hope to make a weapon from it and presents much less of a long-term management problem, as its components have half-lives of tens, not millions, of years. An IFR plant could melt down only by breaking the laws of physics: if the fuel pins begin to overheat, they expand, stopping the fission reaction.

GE Hitachi has offered to build a fast reactor to consume the plutonium stockpile at Sellafield, though not yet the whole kit (the integral fast reactor). It has offered to do it within five years, and to carry the cost if it doesn’t work out. This is the proposal the government is now considering. I would like to see it go further and examine the case for the full works: an integral fast reactor (incorporating a reprocessing plant) that generates much more energy from the waste pile.

We are confronted not just with a choice between nuclear power and gas or coal – whose consequences I have explained elsewhere – but also with a choice between different nuclear technologies. This is a choice that has to be made, because we have a monstrous pile of nuclear waste, a legacy of both the irresponsible short-termism of those who ran previous generations of nuclear power plants and of the nuclear weapons industry. We cannot wish this waste away. It exists and something must be done about it.

There are currently three serious options on the table. The first is to bury it. We get nothing from this except a bloody great hole in the ground and a bill to match. The second is currently the government’s favoured option: mixed oxide processing (Mox). This has already proved to be an expensive fiasco. It produces (when it works at all) fuel that hardly anyone wants, at great cost, and more waste plutonium than we possess already. Its contribution to the electricity supply is feeble, raising the energy extracted from nuclear fuel from 0.6% to 0.8%. Most importantly, it can deal only with plutonium waste, whereas IFRs also consume depleted uranium. Even the government admits that “the value of the fuel to reactor operators is significantly less than the cost of its manufacture”.

The third option is fast reactors, ideally integral fast reactors. This is the one I favour, and unless you can provide me with a powerful reason why it should not receive serious consideration, it is the option I will continue to promote.

Whichever of the three choices we make, we will be choosing a nuclear technology – and a major contract for a nuclear operator. We will be favouring one branch of the nuclear industry at the expense of two others. If, for example, we prevail on the government to develop IFRs, not Mox, Areva, which hopes to profit from mixed oxide processing, will be sorely disappointed. The same goes for whichever company might have secured the contract for burying the waste.

So which of these options do you support? None of the above is not an answer. Something has to be done with the waste, and unless you have invented a novel solution, one of these three options will need to be deployed (or, conceivably, a different nuclear power technology, such as thorium or travelling wave reactors). But it is a choice that opponents of nuclear power are refusing to make – and that is not good enough.

Let me give you an example. After I first wrote about integral fast reactors, Dr Ruth Balogh, the nuclear issues campaigner for West Cumbria & North Lakes Friends of the Earth, sent a furious letter to the Guardian. She accused me of “proposing a technical fix for nuclear waste.” Yes, that is exactly what I’m proposing. Does she have an alternative in mind? A non-technical fix perhaps? No fix at all?

She went on to lambast both deep disposal for nuclear waste, the design for which, she claims, has “more than 100 flaws” and the Mox plant, whose evident drawbacks she lists. She then goes on to propose … a grand total of nothing. Her solution is to attack the people suggesting an alternative to both the treatments she abhors – without suggesting one herself. That’s not just irresponsible. It’s dumb.

She then suggests that IFRs could cause a “nuclear catastrophe at Sellafield” big enough to cause the “ruination of the western Lake District”. If she can propose a mechanism which does not break the laws of physics by which an IFR plant could achieve this, I will ask the Guardian to provide space for her on this site to explain it to our readers.

But all of us, if we have a serious interest in doing something about nuclear waste, should make this choice. What do you want to see done with it and why? Simply shouting down other people’s suggestions won’t make it go away.