Wish list for a nuclear world

A-bomb blast at Nagasaki, 1945 Image copyright SPL
Image caption Proliferation remains an unsolved problem, a lifetime after the first atom bombs exploded

The Royal Society, the UK's national science academy, has produced a blueprint for a safer nuclear age.

In a world where nuclear weapons, reactors, and spent fuel are all realities - much as some people would like to wish them away - the society is asking what needs to be done to safeguard those resources, and in doing so, to safeguard us.

Its report, which bears the less than snappy title Fuel cycle stewardship in a nuclear renaissance, makes interesting reading; and as I went through the list of key points I found myself regularly nodding and mouthing the words "good idea".

"The management of spent fuel and radioactive waste must no longer be an afterthought..." - tick.

In the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, "avoiding complacency is vital..." - tick.

Research and development should be turned to areas such as minimising the proliferation risk - tick.

What's not to like?

However, the other thought that kept coming into my mind as I read on was "best of luck making that happen".

"Nuclear fuel should be developed and reactors configured to enable the maximum burn-up of fuel..." - currently, reactor constructors and operators are going to do whatever they think is commercially the best option, unless there's some state involvement in that particular programme, in which case political considerations may play the leading role.

"Governments should establish a national policy" that includes "initiating plans for delivering timely geological disposal from the outset..." - history's lesson is surely that no government has done this, and what inducement is there when the lifetime of a nuclear station means they'll have 50 years or so to think about it?

"All states with nuclear weapons programmes should separate them from their civil nuclear power programmes, and then place the latter under international safeguards..." - hard to see Israel, for example, taking this one on board, let alone North Korea if that nation really does have the bomb.

The other issue is that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) discussed some of these ideas earlier this year, and the basic consensus of its member governments was that they didn't want to change in the direction of greater international oversight.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Fukushima's reactors are being safety-clad - but the Royal Society wants a good look inside the industry

There's little doubt that the world might be in a happier position if governments, academics and companies did considered something of a nuclear re-boot.

In a speech at the Royal Society, UK Energy and Climate Secretary Chris Huhne discussed some of the reasons why.

"Nuclear policy is a runner to be the most expensive failure of post-war British policymaking," he said.

On the escalating cost estimates for dealing with the UK's legacy: "The provisions for nuclear decommissioning costs in total were £2m in 1970, £472m in 1980, £9.5bn in 1990, £22.5bn in 2000, and now £53.7bn..." and there was no guarantee that the eventual total would not be higher.

In the early days, "Ministers were not always impartial; [reactor] designs were chosen and delivered without proper oversight..."

"The decisions made in the early days rubbed against the grain of democracy. They left long-term impacts and heaped costs on future generations."

But the mistakes of the past would not be repeated, he vowed.

The speech is well worth a read, so frank is it, and so informed - at least, when Mr Huhne talks about the UK's past.

The exception lies in his eulogy to the pressurised water reactor (PWR).

"In the US... there was a competition for the most efficient and safe reactor design to produce electricity. A simple objective with a cost-effective result: the pressurised water reactor."

A safe option it was in the submarines for which it was designed, though whether it is the safest choice for civilian reactors is another issue. As I discussed a few months back, nuclear pioneer Alvin Weinberg argued it was inherently not safe at large scale, and advocated alternatives - and he is far from alone.

And an "open competition" it wasn't either, as I discussed in the same article.

Cynics might argue that Mr Huhne lauded the PWR precisely because it's the one that's going to be built in the UK - which in turn is because it's just about the only one that anyone is building these days.

Ideas are around for reactors that basically eliminate the proliferation risk.

So why aren't we trying to build them, rather than persisting with existing designs that do carry a proliferation risk?

Ditto passive safety... ditto the vast reduction, perhaps even elimination, of long-term radioactive waste.

Maybe none of these technological ideas would work as well in practice as today's light-water reactors; but if the research isn't done, we'll never know.

This is really what the Royal Society report is driving at: taking a comprehensive look at everything nuclear we have now, and working out how to change things - be it technology, working practices, regulation, research, whatever - so it works optimally for society rather than just for profit or to make material for bombs.

According to this philosophy, the reliance on light water reactors (PWRs and BWRs) is part of the problem - not the solution to it, as Mr Huhne argues.

The Royal Society's report is a good read, and contains lots of things that to my mind at least make sense, certainly in the areas of concern it flags up.

But don't bet your solar panels on any of it happening.

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