Plutonium as Reactor Fuel
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Plutonium as Reactor Fuel

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists published a lengthy article about the problems of using plutonium in nuclear power reactors, essentially an argument against breeder reactors.  It is based on a book by Frank von Hippel, Plutonium: How Nuclear Power’s Dream Fuel Became a Nightmare. It is essentially an argument against TerraPower, a new type of reactor proposed by Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and others, including some funding from the US Department of Energy. 

The Bulletin article argues against any use of plutonium for power generation because of two downsides:

  • Potential use of plutonium in a nuclear weapon;
  • The danger of serious nuclear accident;
  • A related problem is the disposal of dangerous nuclear waste. 

India’s use of civilian-produced plutonium in its first test nuclear explosion in 1974 illustrated the weapon proliferation dangers.  The US government turned against the use of plutonium in power reactors, but Britain and France continued to pursue the technology.  Separating plutonium from spent nuclear fuel is called reprocessing, which is an essential process for creating plutonium for weapons.  The US agreed not to oppose reprocessing in certain countries, including the UK, France, Japan and Germany.  The Soviet Union of course had its own reprocessing plants for military or civilian plutonium.  The book then discusses how most of the countries that started reprocessing largely abandoned the technique, except for France, which relies on nuclear power for much of its electricity.  Beside France, reprocessing continues in India, Russia, Japan and China. 

According to Wikipedia, TerraPower’s fuel cycle plan does not involve reprocessing nuclear fuel to produce plutonium.  The plutonium would remain in the reactor.  As the uranium fuel in the reactor center core is used up, the plutonium produced in outside layers around the core who take over as the fuel. All the waste would remain in the reactor until it was decommissioned.  Of course, this still leaves the problem of waste disposal in the future, although it reduced the proliferation problem. 

According to The Guardian, the first reactor of this type may be built in Wyoming. 

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