Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Waste not, want not: nuclear fuel recycling

Prototype for the Integral Fast Reactor
"Down in the dumps" (New Scientist, 16/2/13, p 28) rather depressingly reveals that as far as radioactive nuclear waste is concerned, nothing has changed in decades and the repository route for dealing with nuclear waste may never be acceptable. One might say the thinking on waste disposal had vitrified!

Yet there is a solution available: PRISM reactors, based on the proven passively-safe Integral Fast Reactor. These can 'burn' plutonium (the UK has 100 tonnes), actinides, and depleted uranium (UK has 35,000 tonnes). IFRs are highly efficient and versatile, burning almost all their fuel. By contrast, a Light Water Reactor (e.g. Sizewell B) uses 0.65 per cent of the energy in the original uranium ore resulting in the radioactive waste, currently such a headache. The waste produced by IFRs is about 1/20th of that from an LWR. Its radioactivity within 200 years is about the same as mined uranium ore so no long-term repository is necessary.

David MacKay, chief scientist at the Department of Energy and Climate Change, says that there is enough energy in the UK's waste stockpile to power the country for more than 500 years. So why are we still obsessed with repositories? Why not use the 'waste' to make vast amounts of carbon-free electricity, simultaneously destroying almost all the 'nasties'?