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

Author information


  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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