Plutonium is the bad genie of the nuclear age. Let out of the bottle in the 1940s to wreak havoc on the enemies of its creators, it is an element of ill-omen: non-existent in nature, poisonous, radioactive, persistent, the harbinger of nuclear weapons proliferation. Arguably, its use in energy generation is its only redeeming feature, and that is outweighed massively by its drawbacks. Its creation as part of the Manhattan Project is still held as a black mark against scientific research; it’s as close to the stuff of nightmares as has ever come out of a laboratory.
We’ve got rather a lot of it in the UK.
As with many of the nuclear industry’s problems, the plutonium stockpile —112 tonnes of the stuff, the world’s largest civilian stockpile — is a legacy of Britain’s early start as a pioneer of atomic power (and weaponry). Most of it comes from the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel. It costs some £2bn per year to manage, poses a security risk, and undermines the UK’s position when it comes to debates about nuclear proliferation. It’s 112 tonnes of embarrassment.
The debate has been rumbling on for years about what to do with it. Should it be classed as waste, encapsulated in glass and consigned to the UK’s planned deep repository? But that’s a waste in itself, because plutonium is, after all, a potential source of energy. So should it be converted into nuclear fuel? Plutonium is a component of mixed-oxide fuel (MOX), used in many nuclear reactors.
This is now the preferred option of the government — the plutonium’s potential will be realised. However, it hasn’t committed itself to building a plant to make the MOX. The economics are tricky — uranium is cheap, producing MOX is expensive, and the fuel would probably have to be given away. The entire project would entail a massive loss of money. Hence the government’s reticence.
So the MOX plant would be a dead-end. But the plutonium is a dead end in itself.
Another option is to use the plutonium in a fast reactor — a breeder unit, which would convert the element into a less radioactive, shorter-lived form. GE-Hitachi has, in fact, offered to build such a plant; but it’s of a type that has never been built in the UK. The connotations of breeder reactors, and their association with the problems of the Dounreay complex in Scotland, make them a hard sell. But GE-Hitachi claims that its plant could be commercially viable. Their proposal deserves more scrutiny.
Whatever happens, doing nothing just isn’t an option. The genie can’t be put back into its bottle; we can’t just wish it away or ignore it. But just like in the fairy tales, if we take care, ask the right questions, and keep a close eye on the dangers, we can make it work for us.