Lest anyone argue I’m giving the nuclear industry an unnecessarily hard time, we have the latest delusion from Sir David King, suggesting that far from learning the lessons from Thorp (and the ongoing disaster at Fukushima) we should dig ourselves into an even deeper hole. He and the Royal Society (who I showed in Myth IV underestimated the costs of nuclear by a factor of around 3 while over estimating the alternatives by a factor of 2-3) are now calling for MOX production to be ramped up, rather than reduced or abandoned.
There excuse? Terrorists might get they’re hands on the UK’s Plutonium stockpiles in the future. This statement is so wrong on so many levels one scarcely knows where to start, It amounts to saying “yes we in the nuclear industry took tens of billions of taxpayers money and created an awful big mess, but because we created a mess (and unwisely extracted plutonium from spend fuel we had no use for) you need to trust our advice…. which is for you to give us yet more billions of pounds, not just to clean up the mess, but to allow us to make an even bigger mess!” Then again as Hitler said, if you’re going to tell porkies make them biggies rather than little white ones, and that seems to be the nuclear industry’s plan for the future!
Firstly the majority of nuclear reactors in the world function on the “once through” principle meaning the plutonium is still locked up in the spent fuel rods. So long as these rods are safely disposed of in deep geological storage this plutonium will likely never see the light of day. Only a small portion of the UK’s nuclear waste has been actually reprocessed, most of the AGR & Sizewell B waste has yet to pass through the process, so quitting while we’re ahead would seem the most sensible option. Building another reprocessing plant and a MOX plant (as King suggests) at the costs of tens of Billions of pounds on some form of “ubra-Thorp” would be utter madness.
There is indeed a substantial stockpile of many tons of Plutonium (of various isotopes) that was previously extracted from the UK’s nuclear waste that needs disposing off. Converting this into MOX, would again, be silly.
Firstly, MOX needs to be run through a reactor several times before the plutonium completely breaks down. In between it needs to be reprocessed again and again – more money down the drain, more nuclear waste generated (which needs to go into storage or be flushed into the Irish sea). Also, generally MOX is used in a mixed mode with Uranium…of course some of the Uranium is also Transmuting into Plutonium too….which will need to be reprocess into MOX as well (if you follow the logic, or indeed lack thereof of the nuclear cheerleaders), so the problem isn’t necessarily being reduced at least not very quickly anyway. In this Article, the Nuclear Control Institute discusses the problems of MOX disposal in more detail.
As noted under Myth I the presence of MOX greatly raises the stakes in the event of a nuclear accident, so embarking on the mass use of it isn’t going to do us any favours as regards safety. Also inevitably, once we have burnt off the Plutonium we’ll still need to dispose of the MOX fuel rods, again most likely in geological storage, although given that they tend to be much more radioactive than conventional fuel rods this will make said disposal more challenging and expensive.
Furthermore as we can only continue to “burn” MOX so long as our Uranium supplies hold out (see myth VI), there will inevitably be a substantial stockpile someday of unburnt Plutonium that we will no longer have the means to dispose of via the MOX route. Then what do we do?
Alternatively, there are of course much more sensible means for putting said plutonium beyond use. Notably via a process of “Immobilisation” or “Vitrification” is much more sensible, as the US starting doing under the Clinton (foolishly reversed by Bush) with its nuclear weapons stockpile. In simple terms this involves mixing the Plutonium with lots of other nuclear waste, the sort that separating it from in the future, while not impossible, it would sort of be a pain in the ass to do. You then heat it, mix the stuff up with glass resulting in, basically a big glassy block of waste that you can then put into geological storage. The result is far cheaper, safer and quicker than reprocessing it into MOX and all that this entails, as this report (again from the NCI) concludes. The Federation of American Scientists (FAS) also seems to reach a similar conclusion.
If there’s a genuine short term concern about security at British nuclear facilities and the theft of Plutonium, it would cost a few million to rectify this by upgrading security, versus the tens of Billions to build a new MOX generating facility, nevermind the tens of billions more to run it and then clean up the mess later. Of course I’d further point out that such reprocessing actually increases the risk of proliferation and thus Terrorists acquiring the stuff. While there were various reasons why the US abandoned the reprocessing of its civilian nuclear waste under the Ford Adm., reducing the risk of nuclear Proliferation was explicitly one of those reasons….so now the nuclear cheerleaders are trying to claim the complete opposite is true! (black is white and white is black!).
Of course you have to ask why would someone as supposedly smart as “Sir” David King fail to point out these little less-than-convenient facts. Probably because he, like so many others in his industry, is still committed to the “too cheap to meter” nuclear dream. Having drunk the Kool-Aid a long time ago, he and his fellow “fellows” are as likely to realise the truths about their industry as Bin Laden is to realise that the greatest enemy of Islam is what he sees in the mirror every morning.
And for us to rely on the Nuclear industry and its nutty cheerleaders to give us unbiased advise makes about as much sense as “trusting” a used car/double glazing salesman to give us the same!