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November 30, 2011

UK Considers PRISM and Thorium Reactors for converting Plutonium stockpile

Guardian UK - General Electric set out proposals on Wednesday to build a new nuclear reactor at Sellafield that would convert the UK's stockpile of radioactive plutonium into electricity.

The multibillion pound project would take plutonium – the residue from the UK's nuclear power plants – and use it as fuel for a 600MW reactor that could provide power for 750,000 homes, according to GE Hitachi.

The UK government has still not decided which option it prefers for dealing with the UK's plutonium – others include long-term storage, converting it for use in a thorium reactor or building a new mixed oxide fuel ('mox') processing plant – and GE's proposal is likely to face competition. Ministers have been increasingly talking about the future of the stockpile, which costs about £2bn a year to maintain, and some in government want the plutonium to be classed as an asset rather than a liability.

S-PRISM, also called PRISM (Power Reactor Innovative Small Module), is the name of a nuclear power plant design by GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy (GEH) based on a sodium-cooled fast breeder reactor. The design utilizes reactor modules, each having a power output of 311 MWe, to enable factory fabrication at low cost. The design is based on the Integral Fast Reactor.



The Prism reactor works by taking the existing plutonium oxide powder in cans, and converting it to metal. That metal is in turn converted into an alloy and mixed with uranium and zirconium, which is put into a fuel bundle and used in a fission reactor. After the fuel is spent, the waste product that is left would be safer than plutonium in the form in which the UK stores it today, because it would be less liable to be used in weapons and would be more easily stored, the company said.

"The waste is much the same as that produced by new light water reactors," said Eric Loewen, chief engineer on the Prism project.

The new plant could be built on Sellafield property. There would also be enough room to construct a separate new nuclear power plant, as one of the newbuild reactors that the government wants to see built.

GE would not say how much the plant would be likely to cost, or how much profit it could make, but said the investment would be "multibillion" if it went ahead.

One alternative is to convert the plutonium into fuel that could be used for a thorium-based plant. Thorium was explored several decades ago as an alternative to current reactors until the research was discontinued, but some experts believe it could provide a safer, cleaner and more environmentally friendly alternative to current nuclear designs.

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