IT'S HARD TO THINK the world first became aware of nuclear energy over seventy years ago. Hard to think until twenty-three years ago Scotland had one of the most advanced nuclear programmes in the world. Gordon Wilson, former leader of the SNP, spoke in Westminster many times showing a keen interest in Dounreay and "its importance to the Highland economy"
Then in 1994 the money ran out. Dounreay's Prototype Fast Reactor worked. It was a technical success and so its use had expired for many in Westminster. Given the political barriers to building new reactors this was a terrible mistake. The Russians are roaring ahead now operating two fast neutron reactors like Dounreay but at least twice as powerful.
Two of its BN600 could power our East coast from Borders to Dundee, three of the BN800 next generation reactors could power the whole of the west coast and central Scotland too. The Americans have been busy trying to promote their PRISM reactor which is about the same power output as Dounreay but with an innovative metal fuel that makes reprocessing a lot easier and cleaner.
As is so often the case the British seem to enjoy developing things for others to take to market. Fast reactors (so called because they use very high energy particles) can create more fuel than they use but in todays world of low uranium prices they have a much better feature. Those high speed particles also smash up the waste as it's created. The result is nuclear waste that's smaller in volume and needs to be stored only a few hundred years before being as safe as natural uranium ore.
How hard is it to keep something dry, in a stable environment, for a few hundred years? Go to any museum or country house and materials as delicate as canvas, porcelain and hardwood are in as good condition today as back in the 18th century. It is, physically speaking, no time at all.
Fast reactors also have no water in their cores. Early on this was seen as an issue as the liquid metal they use can burn if it leaks. But experience has shown, even as a worse case scenario, this is no great issue. Water, however, means a reactor that does meltdown, rare as this is, will generate hydrogen at high temperatures. Fukushima, Chernobyl, Three Mile Island – all had this issue and only luck prevented Three Mile Island going up the same way.
Fast reactors sit in literally a huge pool of metal at normal pressure, they can't lose their coolant so they can't meltdown. The Americans were so confident they actually ran an experiment where all reactor power was shut off; the reactor known as EBR2 just turned itself off.
So how much fuel do they use? To fuel a 1GW reactor means using about one tonne of uranium or thorium a year to regenerate the fuel consumed, about the volume of a large dog. This is how much waste they make too which can be stored as glass. Certainly no more than could fit in the back of a transit van. Given 1GW is enough for one million people that's pretty good going.
It is amazing that in over 40 years the attitudes of many have now changed towards nuclear power. Imagine asking people their views on road safety based on the Austin Metro, or about the digital economy based on their childhood memories of the Acorn 3000 or the Commodore 64. There is no honesty or rigour in using 40-year-old arguments against modern nuclear reactors.
Worse is the idea the safest nuclear power comes from extending the life of old reactors. The opposite surely is true? When run commercially, Russia's BN600 has operated for about 73% of its life. That's excellent for a prototype and shows how the technology has come. The UK has great experience operating fast reactors including how to beat some of their challenges.
With 150 tonnes of separated plutonium, enough for about 30,000 bombs, the UK needs a way of dealing with it. That is enough to fuel 150GW of reactor power assuming we make as much fel as we consume; three times the power the UK currently generates. Scotland could easily use, say, 2.5 tonnes of this and be paid by the UK to do so, given how expensive it is to store. Let's summarise that:
Any country with a few million people, an advanced economy, a technical base and political will could become the world leader in nuclear power. Scotland is perfectly placed to develop an independent fast reactor sector. The principles are proven, it would only be for us to mature the technology fully.
Every pound spent would be a Scottish job. We would not need to import any fuel as we have enough uranium above ground already for centuries of power generation. Two PRISM units or rebuilds of Dounreay reactors at Thurso and Torness, and four at Hunterston, and we would have about 2.5GW of baseload power. Factor in availability and we have 2GW operating at any one time. That would be as much as the two stations operating today. If we doubled down on nuclear technology we would cover all of Scotland's electricity needs and have power spare to plug-in hybrid cars and keep the elderly warm with overnight storage heating.
If we believe carbon dioxide is an issue then of course all of this would be carbon free. Nice coal ash, no carbon dioxide, no other nasty oxides. France rapidly expanded its nuclear generation in just 15 years. It is staggering given its potential why the SNP has not gone for this in a big way. It would make us the beacon of the western world when it comes to energy. We have the political will and the technical know how to do this.
Plutonium loaded into reactors along with depleted uranium or thorium (to make new fuel) could revolutionise our economy and create thousands of highly paid technical jobs. We did it with offshore oil when everyone thought it was impossible. We simply have to call out our anti GM, anti fracking, anti nuclear anoraks for the flat Earth Luddites they are. They have no credibility beyond their banal screeching.
The next North Sea lies beneath our feet if we reach for the stars.