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09 June 1998

After Dounreay: The End of the Nuclear Dream?

Physicist Joe Kaplinsky explains what really lies behind last Friday's closure of the British nuclear power plant at Dounreay

New Labour's announcement that the clapped out nuclear plant at Dounreay in Scotland was to close was greeted with a mixture of glee and foreboding by anti-nuclear activists. Even before last week's announcement, Dounreay was a symbol of the slow disintegration of the nuclear industry across the west. Fears over pollution from nuclear waste or the possibility of a Chernobyl-style accident have come to dominate the public mood. The promise of 'unlimited growth' once associated with nuclear power now, for many, seems unattractive and unlikely to inspire support.

New Labour's critics, while welcoming the decision to close Dounreay, have claimed that it was driven more by safety concerns and practical politics than by the stated economic motives. No doubt the government felt under pressure on these fronts. But Dounreay had become uneconomic. Indeed, in the absence of a proper nuclear programme an even better description would be pointless.

Dounreay was built to develop 'fast breeder' reactors and fuel reprocessing technology. Breeder reactors are so called because they produce more new fuel (in the form of plutonium), than they burn (in the form of uranium). They are also able to burn the new plutonium fuel far more efficiently than conventional reactors. Reprocessing is needed to extract the new plutonium fuel from the old, and can also be used to recycle uranium fuel used in conventional reactors. Without reprocessing only three per cent of fuel can be burnt. The remaining 97 per cent must be discarded, and makes up the most dangerous of nuclear wastes. Reprocessing together with fast breeder reactors can burn virtually all the fuel by recycling it many times, and thus reduce high level wastes by almost 90 per cent. But the widespread development of fast breeders and reprocessing never took place, rendering Dounreay redundant. What went wrong?

Firstly the technology of reprocessing - purifying plutonium - is just what is needed to make the raw material for bombs. Of course, there is more to making a bomb than getting your hands on some plutonium. But today the fear of nuclear proliferation amongst the leaders of the developed world is so intense that in comparison to even the smallest possibility of proliferation any and all benefits of nuclear technology are quickly dismissed.

It was not always like this. A significant shift in policy occurred in 1977 when newly elected President Jimmy Carter declared that the US was to abandon reprocessing technology because of fears over proliferation. His further demand that the rest of the world also abandon it was in violation of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, which obligates nuclear weapons states to assist other countries with development of civil nuclear programmes,. This move was greeted by international protest. None the less, it was a decisive blow against the nuclear industry, and the threatened sanctions had much of the desired effect.

Secondly, and more importantly, like any comparable activity, reprocessing has to be done on a big enough scale to make it worth while. When Britain's first breeder reactor went critical (started normal operation) at Dounreay in 1959, priorities were driven not just by the military, but also by an expectation of continued rapid economic growth and a belief that scientific advances held the key to the progress of humanity. Along with this, demand for energy was expected to grow in step. But in the early 1970s the world economy suffered a slowdown from which it has not fully recovered. As a result existing orders for new nuclear power stations were slashed.

Fears over environmental and health problems have shaped the industry's neurosis. Today no western power will unapologetically champion nuclear potential to the extent that countries like South Korea have been forced to scale down their nuclear ambitions at the say so of the IMF. However Japan has recently started operating the world's most advanced reactor, and China is on target with a plan for dramatic expansion. But the western powers are so paralysed by fear that the best they can do with their nuclear monopoly is to try to stop the rest of the world developing any nuclear strategy whatsoever. Fortunately for the future of electricity production there is a healthy disregard for the western nuclear monopoly. Unfortunately for the future of humanity, the balance of power still lies in the west, and it is western powers which dictate what gets built and where. That balance of power is what is holding us all back.

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