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U.K. Studying Whether to Use Fast Reactors to Destroy Plutonium

The United Kingdom is weighing whether to take up a proposal by GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy to use experimental fast reactors to destroy the nation's massive stockpile of plutonium, which is viewed as a nuclear security risk, the London Independent reported on Monday.

The country has the planet's largest reserves of plutonium -- 112 metric tons of waste material that were generated by recycling of used reactor material.

North Carolina-based GE Hitachi is proposing to build two identical Prism fast reactors at the Sellafield reprocessing facility that would burn stockpiled plutonium, turning it into atomic energy. The British Nuclear Decommissioning Authority is studying the proposal; a determination on whether to move forward is anticipated before 2012 is over.

Skeptics point out that GE sodium-cooled fast reactors have not been commercially used before and so might not be suitable for the critical task in the United Kingdom.

The British Nuclear Decommissioning Authority maintains its "preferred option" for disposing of the plutonium is to first turn it into mixed-oxide fuel that would subsequently be used to power traditional atomic energy reactors. Still, the governmental body is not closing the door on separate "credible options" such as the GE Hitachi fast reactors.

The authority "has previously stated that fast reactors, such as Prism, have been screened out as not credible at this time. It was not considered that they would be commercially available for several decades," an NDA spokesman said. "Though the technology was well-developed at the research reactor stage, the supply chain has yet to give indication of any substantive commercial development of these systems in the short-to-medium term.

"At this time, NDA believe that this is still the case. However, we are considering the recent proposal from GE-Hitachi to assess its credibility," the spokesman added.

Another disposal option is to turn the plutonium -- presently held in powder form in temporary storage at Sellafield -- into ceramic chunks that can be deposited far beneath the Earth's surface for multiple millennia. While the government has already rejected such a plan, supporters point out the United Kingdom already will be forced to construct a subterranean dump to store other kinds of atomic waste.

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