U.S. Deep-Sixes Plutonium Fuel Plant

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has terminated construction of a facility designed to transform 34 metric tons of surplus military plutonium, enough for about 17,000 nuclear weapons, into fuel for nuclear power plants. The Aiken, South Carolina project began in 2007 and was at least $2.6-billion over its $4.9-billion estimated cost and still years from completion — akin to the troubled pair of Westinghouse AP1000 nuclear reactors under construction in nearby Vogtle, Georgia and another pair killed last year at South Carolina’s VC Summer plant.

Mismanagement is only half the story, however, according to Edwin Lyman, a physicist and nuclear expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington. Lyman says the plant was also plagued by safety, technology and regulatory challenges specific to handling plutonium. Trace amounts of plutonium cause lethal cancers and its 24,110-year half-life means small releases could render lands uninhabitable for generations making it an attractive material for would-be makers of ‘dirty’ bombs. Continue reading “U.S. Deep-Sixes Plutonium Fuel Plant”

China Close to Firing Up a Fast Reactor

Russian nuclear energy holding company Rosatom reported yesterday that a subsidiary had completed construction of an experimental nuclear reactor in Beijing. At 25 megawatts the reactor’s power output is small, but it sends a big message about where nuclear technology may be heading — especially after the Obama Administration’s effective cancellation last month of plans to store U.S. spent nuclear fuel at an underground repository below Nevada’s Yucca Mountain.

The Chinese Experimental Fast Reactor is so-named because the neutrons produced in its core are not ‘moderated’ with water like those that generate heat in nearly all commercial nuclear reactors. The faster neutrons can burn down nuclear waste and even generate new fuel, promising a solution to the thorny problem of waste storage as well as energy independence.

Continue reading “China Close to Firing Up a Fast Reactor”