Correspondence | Published:

Nuclear waste

Use fast reactors to burn plutonium

Nature volume 486, page 323 (21 June 2012) | Download Citation

Frank von Hippel and colleagues review some disposal options for radioactive plutonium waste (Nature 485, 167–168; 2012). Another option is the profitable consumption of plutonium from thermal nuclear plants in a fast-spectrum breeder reactor with fuel recycling.

A prototype Integral Fast Reactor was operated at the Argonne West National Laboratory in Idaho for 30 years until 1994. 'Burning' spent nuclear fuel produces a fraction of the waste of current reactors, and it has low radiotoxicity (W.H. Hannum (ed.) Prog. Nucl. Energy 31, 1–217; 1997).

The reactor's metal fuel (mainly uranium, plutonium and zirconium) and liquid-sodium coolant provide passive safety. An unpressurized pool vessel disperses decay heat by natural convection, even when cooling pumps are inoperable and the heat sink is lost.

The fuel-recycling system generates vast amounts of clean electricity, extending uranium supplies 150-fold — unlike today's once-through-and-throw-away cycle. Its proliferation risk is low because the products are unsuitable for use in fissile weapons.

The company GE Hitachi has designed an integral fast reactor, the 311-megawatt electric Power Reactor Innovative Small Module (PRISM), that is intended for commercial use. A prototype plant is already being considered in the United States, and the company has recommended these plants to the UK government for plutonium disposal (see go.nature.com/dwiqvg).

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Affiliations

  1. University of Adelaide, Australia.

    • Barry W. Brook
  2. Science Council for Global Initiatives, Woodland, California, USA.

    • Tom Blees
    •  & William H. Hannum

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Correspondence to Barry W. Brook.

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DOI

https://doi.org/10.1038/486323b

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