The Independent - 15 Jun 97

Prof. Robert B. Laughlin
Department of Physics
Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305
(Copied 3 Sep 09)

Want Fast Breeders? Get Rabbits

By Geoffrey Lean
Sunday, 15 June 1997

I have always enjoyed the reaction of the French nuclear chief when asked, some years ago, why he did not hold public inquiries before building reactors. "When you are draining the pond," explained Remy Carle, then head of the country's electricity board, "you don't tell the frogs."

Last week the "frogs" got back at the cooling ponds. The new Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin, ordered the closure of the pride of the French nuclear industry, the Super Phenix fast breeder reactor. As the unfortunately named plant turns to ashes, it carries the brightest hopes of the nuclear age.

Fast breeders were to produce more usable fuel than they burned - "as though," the science writer Ritchie Calder put it in 1956, "the pixies filled the coal scuttle every time you stoked the fire".

But they became a particular target for environmentalists because they are more dangerous than normal reactors, and because the fuel they produce is plutonium, the stuff of nuclear bombs. "The only safe fast breeder," proclaimed a 1970s T-shirt, "is a rabbit."

Certainly the nuclear industry expected them to grow like Flopsy; it announced 30 years ago that there would be 20 in Britain alone by 1986 and that their development "would be the major event of the rest of the century".

Yet Super Phenix managed to produce electricity for only 300 days over 20 years, despite spending pounds 5bn. Its British counterpart, Dounreay (deliberately placed on the North Scottish coast, as far as possible from London for fear it might explode) was scrapped three years ago, after an expenditure of pounds 4bn.

Another fast breeder, in Japan, was shut down after a massive accident 18 months ago. This was initially hushed up, but now Japanese nuclear chiefs have changed tactics: this spring, after a fire at the country's equivalent of Sellafield, they visited all 11,300 homes in the nearby town, bowing deeply and presenting letters of apology.

Now there's an idea. Any chance of French nuclear chiefs apologising to the "frogs"? And wouldn't it do the heart good to see British Nuclear Fuels' top management bowing and scraping their way around Cumbria after all the pollution, accidents and cover- ups of the past decades?

Dream On

Far from repenting, BNFL plans to open a new pounds 300m plant to produce the mixed plutonium and uranium fuel needed for fast breeders, even though there are no reactors to burn it.

It is hoping to flog it for use in ordinary reactors. But BNFL's sales pitch should be taken with a large pinch of radioactive salt. Both American and Swiss experts have told special conferences that it will cost far more than ordinary nuclear fuel, even if the plutonium in it is given away free.

The new ministers have yet to focus on this boondoggle. Indeed, it only began to cross their radar screens last week with a row about the fuel - from an experimental plant - being flown over Britain.

BNFL was loud in its protestations that the containers used for the flights had been tested to ensure they could "withstand very severe and highly improbable accidents" - including being dropped from "nine metres". I suppose they've got a point. The chance of one falling just 27 feet or so from an aeroplane does indeed seem remote.

To be fair, BNFL also says it has tested them more severely - dropping them from 520 feet. But the greatest danger comes not from plane crashes but from the possibility that terrorists or rogue states might get hold of the fuel.

Though BNFL denies it, top US atomic bomb makers have testified that it would be relatively simple for terrorists to extract the plutonium and make a crude atomic bomb. When I confronted the Foreign Office with this evidence some time ago it grudgingly agreed. "But," it added reassuringly, "this is not the sort of thing that responsible people would do."