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UK Considers GE's PRISM Nuclear Reactor Design


Nuclear energy is nothing if not controversial.  Environmentalists call out the potential for accidents and the question of what to do with the toxic waste.  But proponents of nuclear energy say a new generation of reactors – integral fast reactors – or IFRs – could solve these problems. 

In this edition of the Business Brief, WHQR’s Rachel Lewis Hilburn sits down with Tom Blees, energy consultant and President of the Science Council for Global Initiatives.  Blees says IFRs such as GE-Hitachi’s PRISM design could create cheap, clean, and abundant energy by consuming nuclear waste. 

Tom Blees has written a book about the potential of IFRs to solve the world’s energy problem.  And he’s excited about the prospect of getting GE’s first PRISM Reactor built on a commercial scale because, he says, it sidesteps many of the complications associated with nuclear energy – like the waste problem.

“Well, the thing about the IFR – the PRISM reactor, is that the fuel that it uses is essentially better than free.  Because it uses depleted uranium.  It uses old weapons.  It uses nuclear waste.  So it’s materials that we would gladly pay to get rid of.” 

What’s left, says Blees, is less waste that’s less toxic for a far shorter period of time. 

“You still end up with nuclear waste, but it’s only going to be radioactive for a few hundred years.  And it’s going to be embedded in a glass or ceramic form that won’t leach anything into the environment for thousands of years but it’s only radioactive for a few hundred.” 

So essentially you solve the waste problem, says Blees.  And on that front, Great Britain is leading the charge.  The world’s largest stockpile of plutonium lives at a nuclear reprocessing plant in England near the coast of the Irish Sea.  As the volume of plutonium grew, co-signatories on the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty started asking British authorities: 

“Hey, what are you going to do with all that plutonium?  So they decided that they would figure out what to do with it.  They put out what’s called a consultation which is essentially a request for advice.   And General Electric submitted a proposal to build the PRISM fast reactor which is this type of integral fast reactor that I’m wanting to build.” 

"Now these fast reactors – they can use all that depleted uranium for fuel.  [In our country, we’ve got about 700k tons of depleted uranium.]” 

Just two years ago, safety concerns about nuclear facilities grabbed the world’s attention when an earthquake and tsunami caused a massive nuclear disaster in Japan.  But the passive safety design of PRISM, says Blees, is fundamentally different from the Fukushima Daiichi plant. 

“It uses a reactor that doesn’t require human or mechanical intervention to shut down if there’s an accident.  The laws of physics shut it down.  You can’t maintain the reaction.  They’ve done all the testing.  It’s seismically really robust.  Just the standard design without even extra seismic resistance is enough to withstand almost twice the ground acceleration that happened at Fukushima.” 

Blees says even the threat of proliferation – technology and / or materials getting into the hands of rogue nations or terrorists – is mitigated with this kind of reactor. 

“Integral fast reactors avoid this whole problem because you never have to enrich uranium.  And you never have to mine uranium anymore.” 

The Clinton Administration cut funding for the American breeder reactor program in 1994.  Blees says it was in deference to the renewal of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. 

“And it was kind of a cheap way to fulfill the letter of the law by doing something that’s considered a non-proliferation move without actually getting rid of your weapons.” 

So the first PRISM reactor will be built overseas.  Where, exactly, is still an open question. 

GE Spokesman Christopher White says UK authorities will decide in the next couple of weeks which of three proposals they consider to be credible.  GE is competing against two other companies with different plant designs. 

Even if the UK decides to further explore the PRISM design, the next step, says White, is a multi-year justification process.  So any deal to build a facility is years away.

Tom Blees says the United States won't be a pioneer on this front.   

“What’s much more likely is that the first Prism reactors will be built in a country that has a more autocratic style of government – like Russia or China or something like that.  And they’ll demonstrate it at scale.” 

Tom Blees is the author of "Prescription for the Planet:  the painless remedy for our energy and environmental crises".

Rachel hosts and produces CoastLine, an award-winning hourlong conversation featuring artists, humanitarians, scholars, and innovators in North Carolina. The show airs Wednesdays at noon and Sundays at 2 pm on 91.3 FM WHQR Public Media. It's also available as a podcast; just search CoastLine WHQR. You can reach her at rachellh@whqr.org.