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Are Safer Reactors Possible?

But was the escaped plutonium dangerous? The Guardian reported,

Masayoshi Yamamoto, a professor at Kanazawa University, said the level of plutonium in the sample was lower than average levels observed in Japan after nuclear weapons tests conducted overseas.

In conventional Light Water Reactors plutonium is produced inside fuel pellets. The fuel pellet is a ceramic and in almost every case the fuel plutonium will remain there. The only way the plutonium might escape the fuel pellet, would require that the reactor core overheat to such an extent that the ceramic fuel pellets start to melt. Once the plutonium escapes the fuel pellet, it faces a further barrier, the pressure vessel, which contains the reactor core inside a thick steel wall. If the plutonium managed to get past the wall of the pressure vessel, it would face one or more cement barriers, and then the forces of gravity as it pulled the plutonium to the outside grounds of the nuclear power plant. So how did the plutonium manage to travel a mile away from the Fukushima reactors? The answer is probably because it was ejected from the reactor building by a hydrogen explosion. More likely the plutonium was contained inside the spent fuel pellets that were housed in a pool above the Fukushima reactors. It is far from satisfactory that any plutonium managed to escape from the beyond the grounds of the Fukushima reactors, but in fact the amount that escaped was so tiny that it could do no harm.

So is there anyway, to insure that no plutonium ever escapes from a reactor core? Yes there is, in fact no plutonium can escape from a reactor if plutonium is not produced inside the core. But how is that possible? First while a lot of plutonium is produced in uranium fuel cycle reactors, less than 10% of that amount is produced in the thorium fuel cycle. A 1 GW LFTR would produce about 40 Pounds of Plutonium a year. If the goal is to minimize plutonium production this can be easily done. If the goal is to destroy plutonium, the presence of thorium in a reactor core facilitates the burning of plutonium. Finally if the goal is to produce no plutonium, then the use of fluid fuel thorium breeders (LFTRs) is highly recommended, because Neptunium-237, a plutonium predecessor isotope can be cleaned from a molten salt coolant before it can be converted from neptunium into plutonium by absorbing a neutron. Cleaning NP-237 from molten salt fluid is a relatively easy and low cost procedure. Once out of the LFTR core the neptunium can be destroyed in a burner reactor.

Thus if preventing the escape of plutonium from a reactor core is a major nuclear safety goal, designing molten salt thorium fuel cycle reactors that feature neptunium cleaning from core salts, would prevent the production of plutonium. If there is no plutonium production there can be no escape of plutonium.

Thus we have a choice of safety approaches to plutonium management, with the possibility of complete elimination of plutonium from waste stream a real possibility if it was desirable to do so. Total burn of plutonium would be yet another option.

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