Integral fast reactors can convert radioactive waste into energy and pose very little risk.
It’s a devastating admission to have to make, especially during the climate talks in Durban. But there would be no point in writing this column if I am not prepared to confront harsh truths. This year the environmental movement to which I belong has done more harm to the planet’s living systems than climate-change deniers have ever achieved.
As a result of shutting down its nuclear programme in response to green demands, Germany will produce an extra 300-million tonnes of carbon dioxide between now and 2020. That’s almost as much as all the European savings resulting from the energy-efficiency directive. Other countries are now heading the same way. These decisions are the result of an almost medieval misrepresentation of science and technology. For, although the greens are right about most things, our views on nuclear power have been shaped by weapons-grade woo.
A few weeks ago the Guardian examined the work of a Dr Chris Busby. We found that he has been promoting anti-radiation pills and tests to the people of Japan that scientists have described as useless and baseless. We also revealed that people were being asked to send donations, ostensibly to help the children of Fukushima, to Busby’s business account in Aberystwyth in Wales. We found that scientists at the National Health Service (NHS) had examined his claims to have detected a leukaemia cluster in north Wales and discovered that they arose from a series of shocking statistical mistakes. Worse still, the scientists say, “the data set has been systematically trawled”. Yet Busby, until our report was published, advised the Green Party on radiation. His “findings” are widely used by anti-nuclear activists.
Recently in the New York Times the anti-nuclear campaigner Helen Caldicott repeated a claim that already has been comprehensively discredited—that “close to one million people have died of causes linked to the Chernobyl disaster”. The “study” on which it is based added up the excess deaths from a vast range of conditions, many of which have no known connection to radiation, in the countries affected by Chernobyl, and attributed them to the accident. Among these conditions was cirrhosis of the liver. Could it have any other possible cause in Eastern Europe?
Earlier this year, when I asked Caldicott to provide scientific sources for the main claims she made, she was unable to do so. None of this has stopped her from repeating them or prevented greens from spreading them.
Anti-nuclear campaigners have generated as much mumbo jumbo as creationists, anti-vaccine scaremongers, homeopaths and climate-change deniers. In all cases the scientific process has been thrown into reverse—people have begun with their conclusions then frantically sought evidence to support them.
The temptation, when a great mistake has been made, is to seek ever more desperate excuses to sustain the mistake rather than admit the terrible consequences of what you have done. But now, in the United Kingdom at least, we have an opportunity to make amends. Our movement can abandon this drivel with a clear conscience, for the technology I am about to describe ticks all the green boxes: reduce, reuse, recycle.
Let me begin with the context. The UK faces a massive bill for the storage and disposal of radioactive waste. The same goes for the waste produced by nuclear weapons manufacturing. But is this really waste, or could we see it another way?
In his book, Prescription for the Planet, environmentalist Tom Blees explains the remarkable potential of integral fast reactors (IFRs). These are nuclear power stations that can run on what old plants have left behind. Conventional nuclear power uses just 0.6% of the energy contained in the uranium that fuels it. Integral fast reactors can use almost all the rest. There is already enough nuclear waste on Earth to meet the world’s energy needs for several hundred years, with scarcely any carbon emissions.
IFRs need to be loaded with fissile material just once. From then on they can keep recycling it, extracting ever more of its energy, until a small fraction of the waste remains. Its components have half-lives of tens, rather than millions, of years. This makes them more dangerous in the short term but much easier to manage in the long term. When the hot waste has been used up, the IFRs can be loaded with depleted uranium (U-238), of which the world has a massive stockpile.
The material being reprocessed never leaves the site—it remains within a sealed and remotely operated recycling plant. Anyone trying to remove it would quickly die. By ensuring the fissile products are unusable, the IFR process reduces the risk of weapons proliferation. The plant operates at scarcely more than atmospheric pressure, so it can’t blow its top.
Better still, it could melt down only by breaking the laws of physics. If the fuel pins begin to overheat, their expansion stops the fission reaction. If, like the Fukushima plant, an IFR loses its power supply, it simply shuts down, without human agency.
So there’s just one remaining question: Where are they? In 1994 the Democrats in the United States Congress shut down the research programme at Argonne National Laboratory that had been running successfully for 30 years. Even Hazel O’Leary, the former fossil-fuel lobbyist charged by the Clinton administration with killing it, admitted that “no further testing” was required to prove its feasibility.
But there’s a better demonstration that it’s good to go: recently GE Hitachi (GEH) told the British government that it could build a fast reactor within five years to use up the waste plutonium at the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing site in northern England and, if it doesn’t work, the UK won’t have to pay. A fast reactor has been running in Russia for 30 years and similar plants are now being built in China and India. GEH’s proposed Prism reactor uses the same generating technology as the IFR, though the current proposal doesn’t include the reprocessing plant. It should.
If the government does not accept GEH’s offer, it will handle the waste through mixed-oxide processing (mox) instead. This will produce a fuel hardly anyone wants while generating more waste plutonium than we possess already. It will raise the total energy the industry harvests from 0.6% to 0.8%.
So we environmentalists have a choice. We can’t wish the waste away. Either it is stored and then buried. Or it is turned into mox fuels. Or it is used to power IFRs. The decision is being made at the moment and we should determine where we stand. I suggest we take the radical step of using science, not superstition, as our guide.—