A revolutionary nuclear reactor that can recycle its own waste is being studied by the Government as a future source of energy for Britain.
The reactor, which is being developed by a Nobel prize-winning Italian scientist, is said to eliminate the risk of disasters of the type that devastated Chernobyl in 1986. It can also use radioactive waste from other reactors – as well as from its own – as a source of fuel, minimising any environmental problems and reducing the cost of generating electricity.
By offering these benefits, scientists believe that the reactor will ensure that nuclear power plays a greater role in future energy policy. Conviction is growing among governments and some environmentalists that without nuclear power the world will face an energy crisis.
Last week Tony Blair, the Prime Minister, indicated that Britain might have to build a new generation of nuclear power stations. Mr Blair said that the aim would be to reduce carbon dioxide emissions – as required by the Kyoto convention – produced by other forms of electricity generation and declared that the only obstacles to nuclear power were the issues of safety and cost. The reactor, which is being assembled near Rome by Prof Carlo Rubbia, an Italian physicist who won a Nobel Prize in 1984, addresses both concerns.
In a conventional reactor, radioactive fuel – uranium – is used to trigger a chain reaction, in which atoms of the fuel break apart, releasing energy and particles that in turn break apart further atoms, sustaining the reaction. The challenge has been to prevent the chain reaction getting out of control and producing an atomic explosion. This has led to complex and expensive safety systems, which do not always work, as the Chernobyl disaster in the former Soviet Union demonstrated.
Prof Rubbia’s reactor, by contrast, can use other radioactive fuels – such as plutonium, neptunium and other high-level waste products from conventional nuclear reactors – that do not produce enough particles to sustain a chain reaction.
Instead, the reactor has to be fed with particles from an external source. If the supply of particles is cut off – through a mistake or sabotage – the reactor reverts to its natural state, and switches off.
Since the start of nuclear power generation 50 years ago, thousands of tons of hot and toxic radioactive waste have accumulated, awaiting the discovery of some long-term disposal method. In Britain, it is turned into a glassy material and kept in huge, heavily protected cooling ponds.
Dr Kadi said that the new reactor, which is known as an “energy amplifier”, would be able to dispose of waste produced by five conventional reactors, as well as its own. “With this reactor you can put in any type of radioactive waste, as long as you can get it into the right form,” he said.
The first live test on the reactor will be conducted soon at the Casaccia Research Centre. Once the performance of the test reactor has been assessed, the team plans to upgrade to a bigger reactor and particle accelerator and attempt the first “incineration” of radioactive waste.
Nuclear power has had a chequered history since the opening of Britain’s Calderhall, the world’s first nuclear power station, in 1956. Incidents such as the Windscale reactor fire of 1957, Three Mile Island in 1979 and Chernobyl led many countries to halt their nuclear power programmes. Within 20 years Britain will have just one nuclear power station.
Despite its reputation, nuclear power is seen by many scientists as offering environmental advantages because it generates no carbon dioxide. Other forms of non-fossil fuel-burning energy generation – such as wind turbines – do not produce enough power to meet Britain’s requirement to cut its greenhouse gas emissions, while electricity produced by nuclear power is likely to be less than half as expensive as that from offshore windfarms.