Mar. 29th, 2006

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I was listening to a programme on Radio 4 this evening about decommissioning the Dounreay nuclear power plant. It was built not to produce power, but as an experimental site to figure out how fast breeder reactors could produce plutonium and other nasssty stuff. Anyway. The original estimate was that it would take about 100 years to decommision the reactor, but the new goal is to do it in 30 years.

The programme interviewed a charming man who seemed completely unfazed by the fact that much of the technology needed to take the reactor apart doesn't yet exist. Nor did he seem especially worried about the "something or other" that was stuck inside the reactor which meant they couldn't actually move lots of the stuff in the way they thought they could. He didn't even seem worried by the prospect of having to pump out and neutralise the 60 metric tons of NAK (a sodium [Na] and potassium [K] mix used to cool the reactor) even though it was now radioactive and spontaneously ignites when exposed to air or water.

He did have the good grace to sound slightly concerned by the access shaft that had been turned into a waste shaft in the late 60's into which they used to pour low level radioactive waste and - ahem - half-used cannisters of acetylene. He admitted - a little ruefully - that, yes, there had been a bit of an explosion in the shaft in 1977, but it wasn't really all that serious. Probably.

He got a little more shifty when pressed about the various types of waste that needed to be disposed of. The low level waste has to be contained for about 500 years. The really nasty stuff however has to be kept "isolated" 100,000 years. And there's a bunch of intermediate waste that sort of fits somehwere along the scale between 500 and 100,000 years before it is "safe". He did point out that - geologically speaking - ten thousand centuries is not all that long.

They also interviewed a chap who used to work as the "Health Physics" meister at the plant. His job was to specify where the various noxious by-products from the reactor should be stored - classing them as low level, intermediate or high-active. The only trouble was - he averred - that he was regarded by all and sundry as a bit of a kill-joy, so they often didn't tell him when they were tipping away surreptitous lorry-loads of slurry, mixing a bit of high and intermediate in with the low level - as you do.


It was a great - and (bizarrely) rather comforting piece of radio - not least because the chap charged with sorting out this godawful mess seemed to be very capable and was working on the basis that all of the horror stories were true.

You can listen to the first part here - I shall be tuning in to the second part next week.


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