In a nuclear power plant, the process of nuclear fission results in the production of large amounts of heat. The heat is then used to produce steam that can turn a turbine to generate electricity. One issue surrounding nuclear power is what to do with the spent nuclear fuel which is still radioactive.
In 1998 the Royal Society published a report on strategy options for the UK's Separated Plutonium. The first report from 1998 can be found here. The summary is a useful overview of the different options available and highlights the optimism of the future of uranium stocks and stockpiled plutonium to be used in future thermal reactors. This has produced a stockpile of plutonium and a
lack of reactors in which to use it. As well as concerns about how to deal with this radioactive waste, there are also concerns that it may be stolen and used to make nuclear weapons. There is also information about the nuclear reactions involved in the body of the report.
Almost ten years later, the Royal Society points out that no government review happened so a new report " Strategy options for the UK's separated plutonium" was published in 2007 highlighting recent global events that make a review even more urgent. This document contains a useful summary as well as further details in the body of the report about nuclear power in the UK.
More information about the Royal Society Policy project "nuclear non-proliferation", which published its findings in October 2011, can be seen here.
|Applications and implications of science||4a. About the use of contemporary scientific and technological developments and their benefits, drawbacks and risks.|
|4b. to consider how and why decisions about science and technology are made, including those that raise ethical issues, and about the social, economic and environmental effects of such decisions|
|4c. how uncertainties in scientific knowledge and scientific ideas change over time and about the role of the scientific community in validating these changes.|
|Science - Curriculum for Excellence level 4||SCN 4-04a.||Planet Earth - Energy Sources and sustainability: By contributing to an investigation on different ways of meeting society's energy needs, I can express an informed view on the risks and benefits of different energy sources, including those produced from plants.|
|SCN 4-11b.||Forces, electricity and waves - Vibrations and waves: By carrying out a comparison of the properties of parts of the electromagnetic spectrum beyond the visible, I can explain the use of radiation and discuss how this has impacted upon society and our quality of life|
|SCN 4-20a.||Topical Science: I have researched new developments in science and can explain how their current or future applications might impact on modern life.|
|Chemistry National 4 & 5||
Potentially relevant to modules: Chemistry in Society
Potentially relevant to modules: Sustainability (energy and waste management), Earth's resources (Earth's materials).
|Physics National 4 & 5||Potentially relevant to modules: Energy (heat and electricity)|
|Science National 4||Potentially relevant to modules: Fragile Earth (metal extraction, environmental issues)|
The plutonium stockpile
As we saw in the introduction, neutrons are fired into uranium isotopes as a way of generating energy. Once started, the reaction continues as more and more neutrons are produced which go on to attack more uranium isotopes. Once most of the uranium is used up, what is left is known as spent fuel. Plutonium is also created in the nuclear reactor from U-238. Every few years a nuclear reactor is turned off so this spent fuel can be removed and replaced with fresh fuel.
The spent fuel is processed so any uranium and plutonium present can be separated from the waste products. This process was originally developed to obtain plutonium for nuclear weapons. However, separating the uranium and plutonium means they can be re-used in a reactor to produce more power.
In the UK spent fuel has been reprocessed to create stockpiles of plutonium. The idea was these would be used in new types of nuclear reactors. However, work on these new reactors was stopped in 1994 but the stockpile has continued to increase. There is currently no plan of how to deal with these stockpiles of plutonium. A concern is that plutonium is the main ingredient of a nuclear bomb and that the stockpiles could be stolen by terrorist groups.
The Royal Society has published a number of reports about how dealing with this material should be seriously discussed at government level and a strategy put into place.
The first report was published in 1998, a further report was published in 2007, and the most recent one was published in 2011.
Look at the summary page of each of the documents (links below), and use this worksheet to help you investigate how the recommendations have changed.
- 1998 - Management of separated plutonium
- 2007 - Strategy options for the UK's separated plutonium
- 2011 - Fuel cycle stewardship in a nuclear renaissance