Westminster bid to re-launch toxic plutonium reactors

The UK government is trying to resurrect plutonium-powered reactors despite abandoning a multi-billion bid to make them work in Scotland.

Documents released by the UK Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) under freedom of information law reveal that fast reactors, which can burn and breed plutonium, are among “advanced nuclear technologies” being backed by UK ministers.

Two experimental fast reactors were built and tested at a cost of £4 billion over four decades at Dounreay in Caithness. But the programme was closed in 1994 as uneconomic after a series of accidents and leaks.

Now ONR has been funded by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) in London to boost its capacity to regulate new designs of fast reactors, along with other advanced nuclear technologies.

Campaigners have condemned the moves to rehabilitate plutonium as a nuclear fuel as “astronomically expensive”, “disastrous” and “mind-boggling”. They point out that it can be made into nuclear bombs and is highly toxic – and the UK has 140 tonnes of it.

But the nuclear industry says that plutonium-fuelled fast reactors can produce “safe, low-carbon power”. UK government nuclear scientists support the idea, arguing that plutonium reactors can “minimise waste volumes”.

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ONR released 23 documents about advanced nuclear technologies in response to a freedom of information request by Dr David Lowry, a London-based research fellow at the US Institute for Resource and Security Studies. They include redacted minutes and notes of meetings from 2019 discussing fast reactors, and are being published by The Ferret.

One note of a meeting in November 2019 shows that ONR attempted to access a huge database on fast reactors maintained by the UK government’s National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL) in Warrington, Cheshire.

NNL completed a “fast reactor knowledge capture” project in January 2019, including “a series of reports on Dounreay Fast Reactor and Prototype Fast Reactor for BEIS”. The whole archive is said to contain “around 40,000 documents”.

But when ONR asked to access the documents, it was told there were problems. “NNL explained that there may be some challenges associated with accessing some of these documents due to historic security classifications and export controls,” the ONR note said.

In September 2019 ONR talked to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in the US about regulating fast reactors, which can be cooled by sodium. ONR asked about the risks of containment being breached by “sodium fires”.

The commission responded by talking about its “risk informed approach to determine internal hazards such as a fire scenario”. Further details, however, have been blacked out.

In May 2019 ONR met with the Environment Agency, which covers England. One of the items discussed was a proposal “to develop an international benchmark for severe accident analysis for lead fast reactors”.

In another meeting with the agency in November 2019 it was mentioned that BEIS had given ONR £353,000 to continue work on advanced nuclear technologies. ONR also had a telephone conference with the Environment Agency in November 2019 which discussed “potential showstoppers” on radioactive waste disposal.

As well as helping ONR increase its understanding of fast reactors, BEIS has promised investments of up to £44 million to help nuclear companies research and develop a range of new small, new “modular”reactors.

Two companies have so far won funding under this heading to help develop fast reactors that can burn plutonium. The US power company, Westinghouse, is proposing lead-cooled fast reactors, while another US company called Advanced Reactor Concepts wants to build sodium-cooled fast reactors.

In November 2019 BEIS also announced an £18 million grant to a consortium led by reactor manufacturer, Rolls Royce, to develop a “small modular reactor designed and manufactured in the UK capable of producing cost effective electricity”.

According to Dr Lowry, fast reactors would require building a plutonium fuel fabrication plant. Such plants are “astronomically expensive” and have proved “technical and financial disasters” in the past, he said.

“Any such fabrication plant would be an inevitable target for terrorists wanting to create spectacular iconic disruption of such a high profile plutonium plant, with devastating human health and environmental hazards.”

Lowry was originally told by ONR that it held no documents on advanced nuclear technologies. As well as redacting the 23 documents that have now been released, the nuclear safety regulator is withholding a further 13 documents as commercially confidential – a claim that Lowry dismissed as “fatuous nonsense”.

The veteran nuclear critic and respected author, Walt Patterson, argued that no fast reactor programme in the world had worked since the 1950s. Even if it did, it would take “centuries” to burn the UK’s 140 tonne plutonium stockpile, and create more radioactive waste with nowhere to go, he said.

“Extraordinary – they never learn, do they? I remain perpetually gobsmacked at the lobbying power of the nuclear obsessives,” he told The Ferret. “The mind continue to boggle.”

The Edinburgh-based nuclear consultant, Pete Roche, suggested that renewable energy was the cheapest and most sustainable solution to climate change. “The UK government seems to be planning some kind of low carbon dystopia with nuclear reactors getting smaller, some of which at least will be fuelled by plutonium,” he said.

“The idea of weapons-useable plutonium fuel being transported on our roads should send shivers down the spine of security experts and emergency planners.”

Another nuclear expert and critic, Dr Ian Fairlie, described BEIS’s renewed interest in fast reactors as problematic. “Experience with them over many years in the US, Russia, France and the UK has shown them to be disastrous and a waste of taxpayers’ money,” he said.

This is not the view taken by the UK Nuclear Industry Association, which brings together nuclear companies. It wants to see the UK’s plutonium being used in reactors rather than disposed of as waste.

“Fast reactor development is about producing safe, reliable, low carbon power,” said the association’s head of communications, Hartley Butler George.

“They can be used to close the fuel cycle, by recycling its spent fuel and minimising waste volumes. They will produce exactly the type of clean, safe and reliable electricity which we sorely need to meet climate change targets.”

Asked whether new reactors could breed as well as burn plutonium, Butler George added: “This depends on the kind of fast reactor in which the plutonium is used. Some designs focus on a closed fuel cycle, which creates waste with a much shorter half-life, meaning it is safer sooner.”

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The UK government’s National Nuclear Laboratory thought ministers were right to investigate advanced nuclear technologies as a way of help to cut climate pollution. “The rationale for fast reactor development is certainly about producing safe, reliable, low-carbon power,” said a laboratory spokesperson.

“Fast reactor designs have the potential to utilise plutonium as a fuel. They can also be used to close the fuel cycle, by recycling its spent fuel and minimising waste volumes.”

The Office for Nuclear Regulation confirmed that it had been funded by the UK government along with the Environment Agency “to further develop the capability and capacity of the nuclear regulators to regulate the development of advanced nuclear technologies.”

An ONR spokesperson said: “Any proposed reactor design would need to meet the UK’s high standards for safety, security and environmental protection.

“Using the government funding, we continue to resource and enhance ONR’s corporate and technical knowledge of advanced nuclear technologies to ensure expertise is gained and retained in the long-term so we can regulate effectively in the future, if we are required to do so.”

The Scottish Government has frequently insisted that it is against building new nuclear stations in Scotland. But in 2017 it added a rider, saying that its policy was “opposition to new nuclear stations, under current technologies”.

Critics point out that this could leave the door open to advanced nuclear technologies such as plutonium-burning fast reactors. When asked whether this was the case, the government didn’t directly respond.

“The Scottish Government remains opposed to new nuclear power plants in Scotland,” a spokesperson told The Ferret. “The Scottish Government believes our long term energy needs can be met without the need for new nuclear capacity.”

The UK Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy did not respond to repeated requests to comment.

The plutonium experiment started at Dounreay

Plutonium is created when uranium is burnt in nuclear reactors. It is highly toxic and can be used to make nuclear bombs, or to fuel reactors to generate power.

Plutonium has been extracted from UK and other reactors since the 1950s. Some 140 tonnes of it is now stored in high security vaults at the Sellafield nuclear complex in Cumbria, awaiting decisions on its fate.

An article by three German scientists in the international Bulletin of Atomic Scientists on 17 April, pointed out that the store will cost UK taxpayers £73 million every year for the next century. The plutonium is “highly toxic and poses a permanent risk of proliferation,” they said.

“It is enough material to build tens of thousands of nuclear weapons…But after decades of public and private consultation, there is still no accepted plan for its disposition.”

The UK’s plutonium experiment began at Dounreay on the north coast of mainland Scotland in 1955. It was deliberately sited as far away from population centres as possible because scientists at the time feared “a minor nuclear explosion”.

Fast reactors were then seen as the holy grail of nuclear power, because their potential for breeding as well as burning plutonium could hugely increase the amount of power that could be extracted from finite uranium resources. But forty years on perceptions changed.

After building and running a small Dounreay Fast Reactor from 1959 to 1977 and a larger Prototype Fast Reactor from 1974 to 1994, the £4 billion programme was cancelled. The technology, and the economics, had proved more difficult than expected.

There had also been a series of accidents and leaks – including an explosion in a waste shaft – which were often initially covered up. The shoreline and the sea near Dounreay have been contaminated by tens of thousands of radioactive particles that escaped from the plant between 1963 and 1984 – and which will never be completely cleaned up.

Today the array of old reactors and waste facilities at Dounreay are being decommissioned. The task was originally expected to cost £4 billion, but is now reckoned by the UK government’s Nuclear Decommissioning Authority to amount to £2.8 billion, with the aim of finishing in the 2030s.

A spokesperson for Dounreay said: “We keep decommissioning plans under constant review to reflect developments with such a unique and complex programme and to take account of opportunities, including advancing technology and best practice from around the world.”

According to the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, a decision on what to do with the UK’s plutonium in the long term was a matter for government. “Until a decision is made, the continued safe storage of the material is our priority,” said an authority spokesperson.

Photos of Dounreay thanks to iStock/SteveAllenPhoto and iStock/deemac1. This story was published in tandem with the Sunday National.

  1. I’m glad the government is investigating again in nuclear technology, it’s what we need to have any hope of fighting climate change and still being around in 15 years

  2. Several modern designs consume plutonium safely and cheaply. It’s a good thing that investigations are in progress since we have a load of plutonium to get rid of.

    As long as they pick the best design of course.

    The tone and headline of this article implies it’s a bad thing, when it could be a really good thing. So this is obviously just an anti nuclear propaganda piece, not even attempting to be objective. See the section on waste burning reactors.

  3. Anyone who genuinely wanted safe & clean nuclear power would be promoting thorium-fuelled (the waste is low-grade & easy to handle/store long term, and nothing produced can be used in a nuclear bomb) “energy amplifier” design (the reaction isn’t self-sustaining & has to be kept going with a small particle accelerator, meaning it could never run away like happened with Chernobyl) fission reactors in the short term & fusion reactors in the long term…

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