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It was interesting to read the article by František Janouch on the recent revitalization of the Swedish reactor program, “The Time of Green Delusion in Sweden is Over” (Forum on International Physics Newsletter, Fall 2012) and then compare it with the current situation in Britain where incidentally the (National) Meteorological Office recently admitted that there had been no detectable temperature rise in the UK over the last 15 years. In the late 1950s Britain was a leader in the development of reactors. At the peak in 1997 British reactors supplied 26 % of electrical power. This has declined since then as aging reactors were shut down and new ones not constructed. The difference between the government’s handling of nuclear energy and its handling of wind energy could not be starker. Wind turbines are underwritten and heavily subsidized. EDF (Électricité de France) began to press for government guarantees, something which the British government will not even discuss. EDF is one of the last companies to retain an interest in investing in nuclear energy in Britain; several others have already pulled out. Projecting 5 years into the future, it seems almost impossible for Britain to have an adequate and reliable generation of electricity.
The general public do not have a good understanding of nuclear energy, hardly surprising since the features are complex. They naturally fear what they do not understand. However, whichever comparisons you make, nuclear energy is relatively safe. And yet the British government allows irrational public fears to derail its energy policy. A proper campaign of education should perhaps start with the axiom that what a country needs is a steady and reliable source of energy, which is best done with a lot of modest size power stations near cities. That can be done with relatively small nuclear power stations but not with coal fired stations nor wind turbines. This ideal solution is not considered because “the public would not like it”. So through failure to educate the public on a simple point we get seriously wrong decisions.
Looking further in the future, new concepts are needed, especially considering that uranium ores will begin to run out. Most technically developed countries now realize that fast reactors will be essential. When Fermi controlled the first reactors in Chicago with control rods on ropes the idea of fast reactors was frightening. Now it is not. Fast reactors use all the neutrons produced in fission. The faster neutrons can use a wider range of reactions, and there are more neutrons available so that neutron absorbing fission products are less of a problem - they can be burnt up. The neutron surplus also means that the vast stocks of depleted uranium or nuclear waste are possible fuels.
A longer term solution is called an “energy multiplier.” A subcritical assembly fuelled with relatively plentiful thorium or nuclear waste is driven by injecting fast neutrons from accelerated protons striking a heavy metal target. Typical design values are a few hundred MeV with a current of several milliamps. 20 MW input from such an accelerator could produce 500 MW from a thorium assembly. The average UK total electrical power requirement is about 12,000 MW.
Choices will be difficult. Who will make them? Simple democratic methods are obviously useless; no popular vote could possibly be well enough informed. Politicians with a science background are rare. Energy policy has been aimless and rudderless for several decades in Britain. It is time for the British government to lead the process to create a clear and logical policy for the energy future.
Dr Alan Cooper did nuclear physics research at Harwell, CERN, and Argonne National Laboratory. He joined the Physics Department of the Open University in Milton Keynes, UK in 1971 and is now retired.