nuclear waste can help save the planet says Monbiot — but what do the experts think?

Are you worried about saving the planet? Having difficulty deciding on the best policy for our future? Then why not consolidate in one safe and easy step? Just ask for new and improved “fourth-generation” fast-neutron, fast-breeder nuclear technology and you need worry no more, as George Monbiot explains in his latest article “A waste of waste”1:

In his book Prescription for the Planet, the environmentalist Tom Blees explains the remarkable potential of integral fast reactors (IFRs). These are nuclear power stations which can run on what old nuclear plants have left behind.

Conventional nuclear power uses just 0.6% of the energy contained in the uranium that fuels it. Integral fast reactors can use almost all the rest. There is already enough nuclear waste on earth to meet the world’s energy needs for several hundred years, with scarcely any carbon emissions. IFRs need be loaded with fissile material just once. From then on they can keep recycling it, extracting ever more of its energy, until a small fraction of the waste remains. Its components have half-lives of tens rather than millions of years.

Which means that we finally get shot of all that deadly and long-term environmental waste we’ve been wondering what to do with and even make a profit, apparently. And if you are still unsure, then listen to some of the other advantages of this ‘alternative’ nuclear energy as outlined by Monbiot:

The material being reprocessed never leaves the site: it remains within a sealed and remotely-operated recycling plant. Anyone trying to remove it would quickly die. By ensuring the fissile products are unusable, the IFR process reduces the risk of weapons proliferation. The plant operates at scarcely more than atmospheric pressure, so it can’t blow its top. Better still, it could melt down only by breaking the laws of physics. If the fuel pins begin to overheat, their expansion stops the fission reaction. If, like the Fukushima plant, an IFR loses its power supply, it simply shuts down, without human agency. Running on waste, with fewer pumps and valves than conventional plants, they are also likely to be a good deal cheaper.

Clean, safe, and better than free, here is nuclear power that “ticks all the green boxes: reduce, reuse, recycle.” And don’t be put off, says Monbiot, by the nay-saying environmentalists and anti-nuclear campaigners, who “have generated as much mumbo-jumbo as creationists, anti-vaccine scaremongers, homeopaths and climate change deniers” with “views on nuclear power [that] have been shaped by weapons-grade woo.”

We are surely fortunate then, that last week, GE Hitachi (GEH) made the British government an offer it could hardly refuse:

 “[to] build a fast reactor within five years to use up the waste plutonium at Sellafield, and if it doesn’t work, the UK won’t have to pay.”2

A curious offer, perhaps, but not to worry, because, and even if “at present there are no Integral Fast Reactors in commercial operation,”3 of course it will work, and of course it will be safe. After all, and as Monbiot points out, “a fast reactor has been running in Russia for 30 years.” He is referring to the BN-600 reactor, and helpfully Monbiot provides a footnote to a wikipedia entry where you will find the following:

There have been incidents involving sodium/water interactions from tube breaks in the steam generators, a sodium fire from a leak in an auxiliary system, and a sodium fire from a leak in a secondary coolant loop while shut down.

Incidents? – but no accidents, thankfully…

All these incidents were classified at the lowest level on the International Nuclear Event Scale, and none of the events prevented restarting operation of the facility after repairs.

Though there is also the case of the Monju Nuclear Power Plant in Japan where:

An accident in December 1995, in which a sodium leak caused a major fire, forced a shutdown. A subsequent scandal involving a cover-up of the scope of the accident delayed its restart until May 6, 2010, with renewed criticality reached on May 8, 2010. In August 2010 another accident, involving dropped machinery, shut down the reactor again. As of June 2011, the reactor has only generated electricity for one hour since its first testing two decades prior.4

Here’s the New York Times report on Monju from earlier this year:

Three hundred miles southwest of Fukushima, at a nuclear reactor perched on the slopes of this rustic peninsula, engineers are engaged in another precarious struggle.

The Monju prototype fast-breeder reactor — a long-troubled national project — has been in a precarious state of shutdown since a 3.3-ton device crashed into the reactor’s inner vessel, cutting off access to the plutonium and uranium fuel rods at its core.

Engineers have tried repeatedly since the accident last August to recover the device, which appears to have gotten stuck. They will make another attempt as early as next week.

But critics warn that the recovery process is fraught with dangers because the plant uses large quantities of liquid sodium, a highly flammable substance, to cool the nuclear fuel.5

That’s how the fast reactors work, by the way. Unable to use water as a coolant because water would slow the neutrons (which is necessary in older generation reactors), all fast-neutron reactors to date have used sodium as a coolant. It carries the advantage that the reactor operates below the boiling point of liquid sodium (883 C) and therefore at low pressure, which is why “it can’t blow its top”, although the disadvantage is that we are unfortunately dealing with the delicate problem of containing liquid sodium…

“Sodium’s major disadvantage [as a coolant] is that it reacts violently with water and burns if exposed to air. The steam-generators, in which molten-sodium and high-pressure water are separated by thin metal, have proved to be one of the most troublesome features of breeder reactors. Any leak results in a reaction that can rupture the tubes and lead to a major sodium-water fire.”

Which was taken from a somewhat less enthusiastic appraisal of the latest in nuclear technology, written not by “environmentalist Tom Blees”, but taken from a research report of the International Panel on Fissile Materials (IPFM) 6 that was published February of last year.

The IPFM report continues:

As the country studies [in the report] detail, a large fraction of the liquid-sodium-cooled reactors that have been built have been shut down for long periods by sodium fires. Russia’s BN-350 had a huge sodium fire. The follow-on BN-600 reactor [the Russian reactor Monbiot refers to] was designed with its steam generators in separate bunkers to contain sodium-water fires and with an extra steam generator so a fire-damaged steam generator can be repaired while the reactor continues to operate using the extra steam generator. Between 1980 and 1997, the BN-600 had 27 sodium leaks, 14 of which resulted in sodium fires.

The bold highlight is mine – it’s for emphasis: 27 leaks and 14 fires from a single reactor deserves emphasis.

The report then goes on to sodium-air fires, drawing on examples from fast reactors around the world:

Leaks from pipes into the air have also resulted in serious fires. In 1995, Japan’s prototype fast-breeder, Monju, experienced a major sodium air fire. Restart has been repeated delayed, and, as of the end of 2009, the reactor was still shut down. France’s Rapsodie, Phénix and Superphénix breeder reactors [all now shut down] and the UK’s Dounreay Fast Reactor (DFR) and Prototype Fast Reactor (PFR) [also shut down] all suffered sodium leaks, some of which resulted in serious fires.”

Monbiot entirely fails to mention the problems with using liquid sodium, and says nothing of worrying occurrence of leaks and fires, and although he does point out that meltdown is impossible, he also fails to mention that:

“Finally, light-water-cooled reactors have the critical safety characteristic that, if the water moderator is lost, the chain-reaction stops… By contrast, in a fast-neutron reactor, the concentration of plutonium is high enough that it can sustain a chain-reaction even in the event of coolant loss. Indeed, except in special core configurations, the reactivity will increase if the coolant is lost. Furthermore, if the core heats up to the point of collapse, it can assume a more critical configuration and blow itself apart in a small nuclear explosion. Whether such an explosive core disassembly could release enough energy to rupture a reactor containment and cause a Chernobyl-scale release of radioactivity into the environment is a major cause of concern and subject of debate.”7

Back in Japan, about three hundred miles away from Fukushima, and the struggle to save the Monju reactor may have finally been called off:

The Japanese government will consider scrapping the Monju prototype fast-breeder reactor as one of its options in reviewing the trouble-plagued nuclear facility’s operation, nuclear disaster minister Goshi Hosono said Saturday [Nov 26th].8

It is far from being the first fast reactor to have been abandoned. Indeed, and even after five decades of research (since this is actually far from new technology), fast reactors have a rather disappointing track record around the world, whilst the basic claims that they might be used to eliminate stockpiles of nuclear waste and reduce the chances of nuclear arms proliferation, are far from guaranteed.

To help form your own judgment, I thoroughly recommend listening to an audio presentation of the IPFM report mentioned above, which is followed by a very interesting question and answer session. The same link also offers a useful summary of the report with a list of key findings.

Or click here to read the full IPFM report.

Back to Monbiot’s article, which is mostly a hotch-potch of underhand attacks on opponents and half-truths about the wonderful new reactors, although he saves his strongest card till last:

So we environmentalists have a choice. We can’t wish the waste away. Either it is stored and then buried. Or it is turned into mox fuels. Or it is used to power IFRs. The decision is being made at the moment, and we should determine where we stand. I suggest we take the radical step of using science, not superstition, as our guide.

Science should indeed be a guide, although not the guide. You cannot make decisions of this kind purely on the basis of science, since nuclear power is a political issue, involving social and economic considerations, as well as scientific ones. The first-generation of nuclear reactors were sold to us as a source of cheap, safe and almost infinitely abundant power, and have proved to be nothing of the kind. It was a deliberate lie, in fact, perpetuated by governments intent on arming themselves with nuclear warheads. Besides the weaponry, our nuclear plants also created near eternal heaps of deadly waste that we have no idea how to dispose of safely. This is supposed to be the solution to that problem, and perhaps some future technology can indeed convert nuclear waste harmlessly into electricity, although unfortunately, at least if scientists at IPFM are to be believed, that promise is nowhere close to being fulfilled:

Hopes that the “fast breeder”– a plutonium-fueled nuclear reactor designed to produce more fuel than it consumed — might serve as a major part of the long-term nuclear waste disposal solution are not merited by the dismal track record to date of such sodium-cooled reactors in France, India, Japan, the Soviet Union/Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States, according to a major new study from the International Panel on Fissile Materials (IPFM).

Titled “Fast Breeder Reactor Programs: History and Status,” the IPFM report concludes: “The problems (with fast breeder reactors) … make it hard to dispute Admiral Hyman Rickover’s summation in 1956, based on his experience with a sodium-cooled reactor developed to power an early U.S. nuclear submarine, that such reactors are ‘expensive to build, complex to operate, susceptible to prolonged shutdown as a result of even minor malfunctions, and difficult and time-consuming to repair.'”9

According to the scientists then, the latest offer from GE Hitachi really is too good to be true.


To get some idea of General Electric‘s past record in nuclear power, I also refer readers again to this article by investigative reporter Greg Palast.


An article also published as “We need to talk about Sellafield, and a nuclear solution that ticks all our boxes”, written by George Monbiot, published by the Guardian on December 5, 2011.

2According to Monbiot’s footnote: “This pledge was made during a meeting between GEH and UK government officials and advisers on 30th November 2011.”

5“The plant, a $12 billion project, has a history of safety lapses. It was shuttered for 14 years after a devastating fire in 1995, one of Japan’s most serious nuclear accidents before this year’s crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station. Prefecture and city officials found that the operator had tampered with video images of the fire to hide the scale of the disaster. A top manager at the plant recently committed suicide, on the day that Japan’s atomic energy agency announced that efforts to recover the device would cost almost $21.9 million. And, like several other reactors, Monju lies on an active fault.”

From an article entitled “Japan Strains to Fix a Reactor Damaged before Quake”, written by Hiroko Tabuchi, published on June 17, 2011 in the The New York Times.

7 “Fast Breeder Reactor Programs: History and Status” written by Thomas B. Cochran, Harold A. Feiveson, Walt Patterson, Gennadi Pshakin, M.V. Ramana, Mycle Schneider, Tatsujiro Suzuki, Frank von Hippel, published in February 2010.

8From an article entitled “Gov’t to consider scrapping of Monju reactor as option: Hosono”, published in the Mainichi Daily News on November 28, 2011.

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