comment, 23 March 2013
There is a very funny sketch by the comedians, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, performed for Amnesty International in 1989. Cook plays an aristocrat who ran a failing restaurant on the Yorkshire moors serving only frog and peach to eat.
At the end, Moore asks him what he has learnt from his “catastrophic” business experience. “I’ve learned from my mistakes,” says Cook, “and I’m sure I could repeat them exactly.”
I kept thinking of the joke over the last two days while cloistered in a small, stuffy room at Chatham House in London listening to leading experts talk about what to do with the world’s plutonium. The event, organised by Princeton University’s International Panel on Fissile Materials, was fascinating.
Britain will soon have over 140 tonnes of separated plutonium from its nuclear power stations in secure facilities at Sellafield in Cumbria. The British government is currently investigating what to do with it.
The problem is that its “preferred option” is to make the plutonium into mixed oxide fuel (MOX) and burn it in reactors. This is precisely the solution that it has been trying and spectacularly failing to do at Sellafield for the last two decades.
The Sellafield MOX plant was closed down in 2011 after repeatedly failing to meet any of its production targets by large margins. Yet ministers will soon be considering whether to try something similar again.
Most of those gathered in Chatham House, under its well known non-attribution rule, thought this was madness. They were also sceptical of the other plutonium-burning ideas being reviewed by the government’s Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, like GE Hitachi’s Prism reactor, or the Canadian Candu reactor.
They preferred to talk about keeping the plutonium in storage, or immobilising it and putting down deep boreholes. That way, maybe, the British government can avoid repeating exactly the same mistakes as before.