Steve Connor: How do we solve the plutonium conundrum?

Science Studies
  • @SteveAConnor

The arrest this week of five men allegedly taking pictures of the Sellafield nuclear complex in Cumbria has highlighted the terrorist threat to the world's biggest civilian stockpile of plutonium, certainly one of the most desirable commodities for jihadists bent on global terror.

Next week the Government will end its public consultation on what should be done with the UK's civilian plutonium stockpile in "temporary" storage at Sellafield. (Why we have it is another question). The Government has already made clear that its preferred option is to turn the plutonium into a controversial type of "mixed oxide" (Mox) nuclear fuel that could be burned in nuclear reactors to generate electricity.

On the surface it is an apparently attractive option. By turning bomb-ready plutonium into ploughshares you get rid of a waste headache in the process. But dig a little deeper and you see that the strategy is deeply flawed, and based on several myths and artful omissions of inconvenient truths.

Nuclear waste is a dull subject, but bear with me because this is a tale of financial profligacy, voodoo economics and technical ineptitude that will continue to affect the nation for years if not decades to come.

The Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) has produced its own report for the consultation process. In effect it says that there are two broad options. Either we convert the 109 tonnes of UK plutonium dioxide powder in the stockpile into an inert form – either by mixing it with concrete or turning it into glass blocks – and bury it in the ground, or we convert it to Mox fuel and burn it in nuclear reactors.

DECC has concluded it would be cheaper and safer to turn the plutonium into Mox fuel, which means mixing small quantities of the plutonium dioxide powder with much larger amounts of uranium oxide. This Mox fuel can be substituted for the normal uranium fuel. In the process, we can generate electricity and erode the plutonium mountain – mission accomplished.

DECC's report does not of course talk about taxpayer subsidies. The "s" word is banned when civil servants are trying to sell a particular nuclear policy to the public. But anyone familiar with nuclear economics will point out that Mox fuel is considerably more expensive than ordinary uranium fuel dug out of the ground. To get any power company to burn Mox rather than uranium would entail a taxpayer subsidy – but you won't find that in DECC's report.

We have, of course, been here before. DECC wants the Government to build a new multi-billion-pound plant for fabricating Mox fuel at Sellafield. But we already have such a factory, called the Sellafield Mox Plant, and it is a monumental disaster – technically, financially and politically.

The Sellafield Mox Plant was built before it had a licence to operate (it only happens in the nuclear industry) and is a classic example of what is known in economics as "escalation of commitment" – which translates into "throwing good money after bad". Because the plant had already been built by the previous Conservative government at a cost of £498m, and because these costs were "sunk" – effectively written off – the Blair government felt obliged to continue the commissioning process and give it a licence to operate. This meant putting plutonium into the production line and making the complex network of stainless steel pipes radioactive for thousands of years to come.

To date, less than 10 years after its licence was granted, the plant has cost more than £1.34bn and will cost at least a further £800m over the coming decade, with little prospect of it ever reaching its target output of 120 tons of Mox fuel a year – it has produced just 13 tons in total since 2002.

The Government promulgates a myth that Mox fuel is the safest way of disposing of the plutonium stockpile. The bizarre rationale is that by irradiating the Mox fuel in a reactor you make it more radioactive and more difficult to handle than plutonium dioxide powder, and so less attractive to terrorists. What DECC doesn't mention is that the insane economics of Mox fuel production has meant that Britain has been transporting highly dangerous plutonium dioxide powder, technically owned by Japan, to a Mox plant in France. UK taxpayers are effectively helping to pay a French company to process Japanese plutonium into Mox fuel, thus subsidising the risky international trade in highly radioactive substances that are attractive targets for terrorists.

Another myth is that spent Mox fuel is much the same as uranium spent fuel when it comes to disposal. Not so. Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that spent Mox fuel takes about seven times as much disposal space compared to spent uranium fuel – again not mentioned in DECC's report.

A final myth is that just because we've cocked up with one Mox plant at Sellafield, it doesn't mean we will make the same mistakes with a second, especially if we bring in the French who already have a working Mox plant. Tell that to the Americans who are involved with the French in building their own Mox plant, which is reportedly costing five times as much as anticipated and hopelessly behind schedule. Strange, the DECC report fails to mention this too.

Is the galaxy ready for its close-up?

Comparative analogies are powerful things in the hands of astronomers. Now comes the publicity build-up to the construction of the world's largest radio telescope, one so sensitive "that it will be able to detect an airport radar on a planet 50 light years away".

It makes the classic Cold War spy kit – "a satellite so powerful it can read a car number plate in Red Square" – seem puny by comparison.