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GE Hitachi explains PRISM Plutonium disposal in Cumbria

On Tuesday 24th June, David Powell from GE Hitachi presented an update to the Cumbria branch of the Nuclear Institute on the GE Hitachi’s PRISM technology, a fourth generation fast reactor technology that is being proposed as a potential solution to the UK’s plutonium question.

The Plutonium Policy has been under development by the National Decommissioning Authority (NDA) and the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC). Reuse of plutonium is the preliminary preferred option to facilitate disposal of the UK’s plutonium stocks.

The PRISM reactor can recycle used nuclear fuel, reducing repository size, and cut the duration of its high radiotoxicity. It could be utilised to achieve the UK’s goal of disposing of the UK’s plutonium stocks in a safe proliferation resistant manner and provide value for money to the UK taxpayer. Some of the key points raised from David Powell's talk included:

  • PRISM can dispose of all UK plutonium stocks within 60 years. This could be accelerated if required, but is limited by the rate at which fuel can be supplied to the facility from current stores.
  • The reactor is inherently safe due to using a passively air-cooled sodium coolant which prevents a meltdown type accident scenario.
  • Rather than being a completely evolutionary unproven design, the reactor is a development of the EBR-II experimental reactor, which has been successfully operated for over 30 years.
  • The simple and light design of the reactor systems means that it can be assembled modularly, removing the demands for heavy forgings and improving the overall safety against a typical light water reactor. The system is also designed to easily scale meaning a vendor could install a single power unit quickly and for a relatively low cost, gaining a return on investment before acquiring additional modules.

PRISM could also be used in line with a more traditional fast reactor concept. That is, that with appropriate configuration and number of PRISM modules, it could be operated in such a manner that fully utilises current plutonium stocks. Thereby, PRISM could generate 25% of the UK’s electricity needs for the next 100 years and, if based at Sellafield, could make West Cumbria a centre of nuclear excellence for Fast Reactor Technology.

Perhaps more significantly however, if PRISM was part of an advanced fuel cycle that uses spent fuel (which would otherwise remain radioactive for hundreds of millions of years) it could be burnt such that the final wastes were only radioactive for perhaps 500 years. David Powell highlighted that even the UK’s leading environmentalists who traditionally have opposed nuclear energy are looking on PRISM and its comparable technologies as a method they are prepared to support development of.

Rounding off the talk, Matt Aukett Events Sub-Committee chair commented: "While addressing today's challenges PRISM also presents some more fundamental ethical questions about the direction that our future nuclear waste management programmes should take in order to best utilise these fuels for the generations to come and not just what is easiest for us today.  I’m also pleased to hear from David that deployment of PRISM in West Cumbria could provide an opportunity to build on the future nuclear excellence plans for West Cumbria.”

The Nuclear Institute Cumbria branch would like to express our thanks to David Powell and GE Hitachi for speaking to us at this event. We would also like to thank Nuclear Management Partners for sponsoring this lecture series.