William Walker: Two histories of nuclear power can be recounted. The first is the history of the active present. It tells, amongst other things, of the technology’s evolution and role in electricity production, its military connections, installed types, capacities and performance of reactors, their fuelling and spent fuel discharges, their accidents, the supplying, operating and regulating institutions, and the involvement of states. The second is the history of the imagined future. It tells of how, at particular moments, nuclear power and much connected with it have been imagined playing out in years, decades, and even centuries ahead. Plutonium’s history, of each kind, and its legacies are the subject of a recent book by Frank von Hippel, Masafumi Takubo and Jungmin Kang. It is an impressive study of technological struggle and ultimate failure, and of plutonium’s journey from regard as a vital energy asset to an eternally troublesome waste. The argument over nuclear futures became an international storm when the United States—champion of civil nuclear expansionism and main provider of nuclear technologies and materials—reversed course and mounted a campaign to halt reprocessing and the development of fast breeder reactors. Spurred by oil crisis, the nuclear visions conjured by the World Energy Conference and other seemingly authoritative bodies created panic in Washington after India had used civil plutonium in its test explosion of 1974. Before me is a typical study from the period. Its central scenario anticipated that global reactor capacity of 2,550 gigawatts (GW), including 394 GW of fast reactors, would have been installed by 2020 (today’s reality is 420 GW with no fast breeders). Seventeen countries would require substantial plutonium stocks and access to reprocessing by that date. The US government’s aggressive discouragement of reprocessing and fast breeder reactor programs was fiercely criticized abroad. The Ford and then Carter administrations, backed by Congress, were accused of striving to kill the nuclear future by imposing constraints, often by extraterritorial means, on civil production, trade, and development in the nuclear sphere, and by encouraging anti-nuclear movements across the world. Even if all civil reprocessing ceased tomorrow, the experiment would have bequeathed the onerous task of guarding and disposing of over 300 tons of plutonium waste, and considerably more when US and Russia’s military excess is added in. Proposals come and go. Burn it in specially designed reactors? Blend it with other radioactive wastes? Bury it underground after some form of immobilization? Send it into space? All options are costly and hard to implement. Lacking ready solutions, most plutonium waste will probably remain in store above ground for decades to come, risking neglect. How to render this dangerous waste eternally safe and secure is now the question.
Bulletin of Atomic Scientists 7th Sept 2021 read more »