The history of nuclear power's imagined future: plutonium's journey from asset to waste

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Separated civil plutonium should be formally regarded as a waste, not a fuel that has value. It is time for governments and industries to acknowledge – everywhere – that civil reprocessing, plutonium’s provider, is a waste-generating and complicating technology, a source of dangers and burdens rather than putative benefits. Much better solutions to spent fuel management and energy production now exist. Long unwanted as fuel by utilities, immense stocks of plutonium have accumulated in France, Japan, Russia, and the UK from reprocessing programs launched in the 1970s. Politically embedded, they continued long after the “plutonium economy” and its fast breeder reactors had lost credibility. China, a recent advocate, should beware of the costs of going down this road and of stoking insecurities in Asia and beyond if connections to weapon programs are feared. Drawing upon a recent book by Frank von Hippel, Masafumi Takubo, and Jungmin Kang, this essay provides a fresh perspective on plutonium and reprocessing’s troubled international histories, including histories of imagined futures that have so heavily influenced their politics and economics.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)259-264
Number of pages6
JournalBulletin of the Atomic Scientists
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 7 Sept 2021


  • Nuclear futures
  • Plutonium
  • Reprocessing
  • Fast breeder reactor
  • Nuclear trade
  • Spent fuel management
  • Nuclear history
  • Nonproliferation


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