The question of what to do with spent nuclear fuel has never been answered concisely. In spite of a number of creative ideas -- including shooting radioactive material into space, sinking it in the ocean, or burying it beneath Nevada's Yucca Mountain -- there's never been a surefire proposal that stuck.
A next-generation reactor, however, could pave the way. According to the Guardian, GE-Hitachi submitted plans to the UK's Nuclear Decommissioning Authority Monday for a next-generation PRISM reactor that could run on nuclear waste.
For Great Britain, a country whose stockpile of spent nuclear fuel now includes 110 tons of spent plutonium and 38,581 tons of spent uranium, the project has certain allure. According to David MacKay, the chief scientific advisor of the UK's Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), this stockpile could be enough to provide the country with 500 years of low-carbon electricity.
For a nation roiling from an "unprecedented" fifth flood of the summer, and their potential link to climate change, it's difficult not to imagine the benefits of a low-carbon solution. Producing 622 MW of electricity each year, the PRISM reactor could reduce Britain's carbon footprint by an amount equivalent to the emissions of 700,000 automobiles. Yet, as analysis of the Fukushima Disaster reminded us, nuclear reactors -- and the humans that regulate them -- are far from flawless.
Even if the PRISM reactor is approved, it won't be the first foray into nuclear fuel repurposing. In 2008, the UK spent $734 million on a "mixed oxide" (MOX) plant that failed to work. "It was a deeply embarrassing moment for the Government," wrote Geoffrey Lean of the Independent.
The GE-Hitachi PRISM reactor hopes to avoid previous pitfalls by offering a completely different design and a unique funding structure. Rather than risking public funds to build the reactor, as happened with the failed 2008 venture, GE would have a private company build and run the facility.
While still in the proposal stages, the plan submitted by GE-Hitachi Monday offers a glimpse of what the future of nuclear energy might look like. By running on nuclear waste, the PRISM reactor deflates many of the criticisms, including waste and cost, lobbied by opponents like Ralph Nader's nonprofit Public Citizen.
Whether it can defray safety, security, and reliability concerns, however, is yet to be seen.
Interested in Nuclear? Check out these recent articles by Mark Halper, SmartPlanet Contributing Editor on Energy and author of Emerging Nuclear Innovations: Picking global winners in a race to reinvent nuclear energy: