Are 'disposable' reactors a safe energy solution?
By Phil McKenna UNDER cover of night, a fleet of nondescript freighters sets sail protected by a naval escort. The only cargo aboard each vessel is a mysterious cylindrical capsule some 3 metres across and 12 metres long. Ordinarily, there would be nothing unusual about shipping goods from the US around the world, but these 500-tonne containers are no ordinary freight. The ships are carrying a new generation of self-contained nuclear power plants destined for countries such as Libya, Namibia and Indonesia – nations that the US government would not normally trust with the custody of nuclear material. So far this scenario is fiction, but the US-sponsored plan to make it happen, dubbed the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), is real enough. For the past two years, the US has been promoting GNEP as a way of meeting the developing world’s burgeoning appetite for energy. Nuclear power, the Bush administration claims, is the best option for cutting these countries’ dependence on fossil fuels – and thus their carbon emissions – while maintaining a secure baseload electricity supply. Safety and security are the key selling points for this new generation of nuclear generators. The idea is to ship out complete nuclear power plants – including the reactor, cooling and heat-exchange systems – in a sealed, tamper-proof capsule that will run maintenance-free for 30 years, matching the lifetime of conventional reactors. Unpack it,