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U.K. Drops Proposal for Plutonium Power Reactor

The United Kingdom has ruled out a proposal for construction of a power reactor to consume 82 metric tons of plutonium at the nation's Sellafield nuclear facility, in part because the system would require conversion of the fissile substance to a more weapon-usable form, the London Guardian reported on Tuesday (see GSN, Oct. 14, 2011).

The "Prism" system, put forward in November by GE-Hitachi Nuclear Energy, would use sodium-cooled fast reactor technology intended to generate electricity using plutonium metal. The plutonium at Sellafield is presently in oxide form.

The design relies on an underdeveloped technology that lacks a market track record, and the system would generate significant quantities of plutonium-tainted refuse, the British Nuclear Decommissioning Authority stated in e-mails obtained by the Guardian.

The entities behind the proposal "have struggled to reach a clear agreement on the work necessary to demonstrate credibility, without which neither NDA nor government can consider Prism further in the development of our strategy," Adrian Simper, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority's strategy and technology chief, wrote in a Nov. 29 communication to the proposing firm.

A "high-level assessment" by the atomic authority found that the Prism design was "still to be demonstrated commercially," and "the technology maturity for the fuel, reactor and recycling plant are considered to all be low," the office said in a preliminary finding written for the British Energy and Climate Change Department.

Plutonium metal's higher suitability for use in nuclear weapons "would introduce more security/proliferation risk," the agency added. "In summary the Prism concept is unlikely to start before 2050 and as such does not appear to meet the requirement for deployment within 25 years" (Rob Edwards, London Guardian, Jan. 24).

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