Renew On Line (UK) 74
|Extracts from NATTA's journal
Renew, Issue 174 July-Aug 2008
|Welcome Archives Bulletin|
8. Nuclear news
Back to the Nuclear Future
With a new nuclear programme now on the cards in the UK, and Gordon Brown confirming Huttons view that we should think in terms of more than just a replacement for existing plants, there are worries about shortages of uranium. The official position is that the spent fuel from new plants will not be reprocessed (which will save money) but proposals have nevertheless emerged for new nuclear waste reprocessing and MOX plants at Sellafield to produce Mixed Plutonium and Uranium Oxide Fuel (MOX).
The governments outgoing Chief Scientist Sir David King commented ‘We can bury our reactor waste or we can treat it and then use it as free fuel for life. It’s a no-brainer’. This seems to be almost a replay of where we were thirty or more years ago, when the industry proposed THORP. That got built at a £1.8bn cost, but didn’t work too well, trying to reprocess UK and imported spent fuel, until it suffered a major internal leak and was shut down for repairs. The more recently built MOX plant that THORP was meant to supply with plutonium, has also had problems. So now there is talk of new versions of both- or upgrading the existing ones, at a cost of £1bn each. The rationale is that then they could make use some of the 60,000 tonnes of high-level nuclear waste in store to produce MOX reactor fuel that it is claimed could then provide 60% of the UK’s electricity until 2060, with Fast Breeder Reactors linked to a new generation of MOX burning plants.
The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, which operates Sellafield, admits that this plan could have ‘downside’ economic costs, while green groups say it would create a ‘plutonium economy’ with large quantities of nuclear material being transported across the country. Why bother? Perhaps the real reason for this move is that it is now recognised that high grade uranium could become scarce/expensive, with supplies from Canadian and Australian mines drying up in the next 20 years. Reactors would then have no fuel. King commented ‘We have a massive reserve of high-grade plutonium and uranium in Sellafield’s nuclear waste’.
The official position is that THORP will be closed (if it ever reopens fully) by 2010, or soon after, and like the Energy White Paper last year, the new Nuclear White paper (see Reviews) said that there would be no reprocessing of fuel from any of the proposed new nuclear plants. But that means the UK could not join GNEP, the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership being run by the USA- trading in fuel globally. The new White paper said that was long off, but maybe there’s a rethink?
One excuse for a nuclear programme that is sometimes made is that it would get rid of some of the 100 tonnes or so of plutonium the UK now has in stock. Most of this is from past reprocessing activities for UK and foreign fuel, but some is ex-weapons material. As a Royal Society report last Sept. noted, it constitutes a serious terrorist threat. Although as time goes on it will decay to be less useful for illicit weapons production, it’s still an attractive target. Using it to make MOX is one way to make it less accessible, but at present, only it seems the Sizewell B PWR can use this fuel- so we’ve been trying to sell MOX overseas- notably to Japan.
Trouble is, although less attractive than pure plutonium, MOX it still an attractive target for terrorists, so transporting it around the world is risky. It’s also much more expensive than fresh uranium fuel, so we have only managed to sell any as part of a reprocessing deal- we reprocess spent fuel if you take the resultant MOX back. The problems is reprocessing creates a lot of medium and low level wastes and the separation process is the industries main source of radiation exposure to workers and the public. In addition, when you run a reactor, even if using MOX, you still generate yet more plutonium and also more wastes. So the cycle continues. Other ideas include mixing the plutonium with thorium, which although non fissile, is more abundant in the world than uranium, and can be made fertile by the neutrons produced by plutonium fission- or indeed by bombardment with neutrons/protons from a particle accelerator. In theory particle bombardment could also be used to convert some other radioactive materials into less dangerous forms, while releasing some energy. However, it’s a complex and as yet untried process on any significant scale, which would have to be carried out repeatedly in stages, since only a small part of the target material would get converted each time, with reprocessing activities needed in between each stage, to separate out the various products. Messy, slow and expensive, and only likely to deal with a small part of the waste problem.
‘Opinion is divided on whether the plutonium we have is a problem or an asset’, said Cambridge academic Bill Nuttall, an editor of a special edition of the magazine Progress In Nuclear Energy, which explores ‘a range of options ranging from fuels for today’s nuclear power plants and fuel for future reactor designs, right through to the possibilities for prompt disposal’. The latter might involve embedding it in a glassified/ceramic matrix. Most greens would prefer to leave spent fuel from reactors unprocessed and store it- then the plutonium is retained in the fiercely radioactive fuel rods, which no terrorist would be keen to handle. Better still of course, to stop producing any spent fuel in the first place- by not running the reactors. But even then we would still have the left overs from the past to deal with... £73bn’s worth.
CoRWM digs in on waste
The UK government must commission a new study to find storage solutions for waste from new nuclear build, says the chair of the advisory Committee on Radioactive Waste Management. Its 2006 report just covered existing wastes- new waste opened up new longer-term issues which could take decades to resolve.
Research commissioned from the University of Mainz by the German Federal Office for Radiation Protection (BfS) has found that children under five who live within 5 km of a nuclear plant have twice the risk of suffering from the blood cancer leukaemia. They looked at data over 23 years, from 1980 to 2003, which gave them a large sample, some 6300 children. If there was no link to the plants, they calculated there should have been 17 leukaemia cases in children under 5 within 5 km. They found 37.
Though they couldn’t say whether radiation from the nuclear plants was the cause because there is no measurement of how much radiation each child was exposed to, the director of BfS, said ‘given the particularly high risk of nuclear radiation for children, and the inadequacy of data on the emissions of nuclear power plants, we must take the correlation between distance of residence and high risk of leukaemia very seriously’.
UK government radiation advisors COMARE have consistently said there is no link, although they admit there is a ‘non-random’ distribution to childhood leukaemias in the UK and the known cancer clusters around nuclear sites which can’t be explained on current biological models. A similar cancer cluster has been found around the French nuclear site at La Hague. Source: Channel 4 web site For more see: http://www.bmj.com/cgi/content/extract/336/7634/13?etoc
* The new UK Nuclear White paper commented ‘Childhood cancer is also related to socio-economic factors and this does not seem to have been taken into account in the German study. The study also covers a relatively small sample in comparison to COMARE’s 11th report which contains 32,000 cases.’
The State Nuclear Power Technology Company has started construction of China’s first third-generation nuclear plant. Expected to start up in 2013, it will be the first in the world to employ Westinghouse’s AP1000 technology. The 1100 MWe Sanmen plant will be in east China’s Zhejiang Province. Three further AP1000 units are planned: two at Haiyang in Shandong Province, one at Sanmen. This is part of a wider plan to expand nuclear generating capacity to 40 GW by 2020. China currently has 11 units in operation, all using second-generation technology. Source: Modern Power Systems
The 1.6GW European Pressurised Reactor being built at Olkiluoto in Finland, meant to be running by 2009, is now about two years behind schedule and over £1bn over budget. And the French Nuclear Safety Authority has ordered EDF to halt work on the EPR at Flamanville due to irregularities in concrete quality.
The US Senate may have blocked the renewable RPS in the new Energy Bill, but the bill has loan guarantees ‘of up to $25 bn for new nuclear plants and $2 bn for a uranium enrichment plan’ (NY Times, 4/12/07). And like Bush, McCain backs nuclear strongly.
Unsurprisingly perhaps, in an overview of generation costs by the Australian Uranium Association, nuclear comes out best- but this assumes low discount rates. www.uic.com.au/nip08.htm
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