Government facing key decisions about plutonium stockpile

The UK Government is facing key decisions about what to do with what is the world's largest plutonium stock pile.

A report, published in full for the first time last night (November 26), revealed the UK's estimated 100 tonnes of plutonium is not just a potential terrorist target it's increases the 'risk of nuclear weapon proliferation'.

The report, by the highly regarded working party British Pugwash, is called The Management of Separated Plutonium in the UK.

The report is an 'optioneering study' which identifies some major issues which it believes must be tackled if the expansion of nuclear power is to be considered as a 'viable future energy option' both in the UK and worldwide.

Deputy chairman of British Pugwash, Dr Christopher Watson, said: "The strategy developed in the 1990s for utilising the UK stockpile of separated plutonium is currently in disarray.

"There is no immediately practicable policy to use the existing plutonium stockpile, the UK does not have an agreed strategy for correcting its historical mistakes in this area.

"And the current arrangements for storing the stockpile are vulnerable to various threats - theft or terrorist attack.

"If other countries followed the UK's historic practice on plutonium production, the risk of nuclear weapon proliferation would increase.

"The world does not at present have a sustainable energy strategy which does not involve producing substantial amounts of separated plutonium."

In the report three options for the management plutonium are identified:

1. Do nothing - leave the plutonium in essentially its current physical form, and do no more than is necessary to keep the risks involved in storing it at an acceptably low level.

2. Bury it - put the plutonium into a form which can be safely disposed of as a waste material in a suitably designed repository (when that becomes available at some future date).

3. Burn it - convert the plutonium into nuclear fuel which is suitable for use in existing or reasonably foreseeable future reactors, either in this country or elsewhere.

According to Dr Watson: "The eventual solution may involve a mixture of two, and very possibly all three of these options.

"In the short run, the UK has no alternative but to make option one work, and that is again difficult because of the inadequate protection of our existing plutonium stores against the latest manifestations of the terrorist threat.

"In our view most of these answers could properly be made publicly available, a few cannot, for obvious security reasons, and this will have to be taken into account in reaching the final decision.

"However before then, it would be very good if the decision-takers sought to involve the public in their decision to the maximum possible extent, since a positive outcome will depend strongly on public acceptance."

The full report can be downloaded here.

Luke Walsh




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