Integrating six decades of learning about fast reactors

John Sackett and Yoon Chang (seated at left) and Jack Spencer (standing). GABI's Florence Lee-Lowe seated at right.

John Sackett and Yoon Chang (seated at left) and Jack Spencer (standing). Florence Lee-Lowe seated at right.

I learned some important new concepts yesterday from two of the leaders of the Integral Fast Reactor (IFR) project – John Sackett and Yoon Chang.

Among other things, they informed me — as a member of a group of about 35 other attendees at a workshop titled Sustainable Nuclear Energy for the Future: Improving Safety, Economics, and Waste Management organized by the Global American Business Initiative — that the “Integral” part of their project’s name refers to the fact that the IFR creators were aiming to produce a highly evolved system that integrated lessons from a number of separate fast reactor learning experiences.

It also meant that the leaders believed an important part of their project’s success was creating a situation where all of the disciplines required for a complete reactor power plant system were in one place where their special knowledge could be integrated with that of other specialists to produce the best possible system concepts.

Though I’ve written and thought quite a bit about the IFR project over the years, I had a mistaken impression about the reason that “Integral” was chosen to be part of the project’s name.

Because the project combined the Experimental Breeder Reactor 2 (EBR-2) with a closely associated fuel recycling facility that used pyroprocessing to produce new metallic fuel elements, I thought that ‘Integral’ meant that the project leaders envisioned that each IFR installation would include both reactors and a fuel recycling facility.

Rod Adams exercising his questioning attitude

Rod Adams exercising his questioning attitude

That never made economic sense to me; it would substantially increase the initial capital cost and eliminate some economies of scale that would accrue if recycling was done at a specialized, regional facility for a large number of power plants. It also seemed to inherently limit the potential market reach of the system; many potential customers for a safe, reliable nuclear power plant would not want — or be allowed — to get into the fuel recycling business.

Now that I have a better understanding of the ‘I’ in IFR, I’m a stronger fan of the concept and of the various system design iterations that fall under the umbrella of Integral Fast Reactors.

There are several key choices that make the IFR different from other fast reactors that have met with mixed success or outright failure. These choices were made as a result of a focused effort to apply lessons learned, something that happens more quickly and permanently as a result of evaluating a failure. Systematic learning can be inhibited in a situation where moderate successes more firmly establishes a path that has inherent limitations.

An IFR includes the following:

  • Metal alloy fuel vice oxide fuel
  • Fuel element design that provides space for gaseous fission products to accumulate without damaging cladding
  • Low/no pressure sodium coolant
  • Pool vice loop for sodium coolant
  • Inert gas blanket
  • Double walled tank to hold the coolant and provide leak detection in inert environment
  • Double walled steam generator tubes

Within those basic choices, there are a wide variety of iterations that can provide specific solutions to customer needs.

It is important to recognize that the IFR design choices are not just conceptual. They were proven through 30 years worth of experience with an operating [not paper] power plant (EBR-2) and pilot scale fuel recycling facility. The system was reliable, experienced few sodium related challenges, demonstrated passive safety through a well planned series of physical experiments, and produced low worker radiation exposures. That last advantage was a result of the virtually non-existent corrosion of internal surfaces even after 30 years in a hot, sodium-bathed environment.

As Sackett and Chang informed the workshop, the commonly held perception of sodium as being a difficult and dangerous coolant has been proven wrong by experience. Despite the fact that sodium reacts violently when exposed to water or air, no one has ever been injured as a result of sodium leaks. All instances of sodium and water interactions in steam generators have been readily contained and all instances of sodium leaks from piping have been mitigated by standard response processes made easier by the fact that there is no pressure forcing the material out of piping or tanks. If there is a leak, it is a drip or a steady stream, not a gusher.

As I listened, I could not help but compare the experiences Sackett and Change described of working with low pressure sodium to the experience of working with high pressure, “live steam.” Even though water is not normally thought of as explosive, steam explosions were the cause of numerous fatalities in the era before the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and the Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Company joined forces to develop pressure vessel codes and standards.

Even in recent years, after we have had 150 years to become quite skilled at producing high quality piping, valves and pressure vessels, there are instances where people are severely injured or killed by accidental exposure to live steam. Pipes that start as high quality, high integrity components can deteriorate as a result of corrosion or erosion, and valves can either fail or be mispositioned.

One of my former shipmates had the life changing experience of being the commanding officer of a ship that experienced a steam line rupture. Unfortunately, some of the sailors involved experienced a life-ending experience.

We may all be more comfortable with water than with liquid sodium, but power plants don’t use benign, well-behaved forms of H2O, they use high temperature, high pressure forms that are at least as hazardous as hot, low pressure sodium.

Sackett pointed out a maintenance advantage to sodium that I had never thought much about. Since sodium freezes at 98 degrees C, maintainers can easily create a freeze plug to isolate a valve or a pipe section when the plant is shutdown for maintenance.

From my water-cooled reactor experience, I’m familiar with using freeze plugs, but they are not easy or cheap to create or maintain. They require a continuos supply of refrigerant to keep the water well below room temperature. In a sodium reactor, freezing happens naturally as long as there is no effort to add the heat required to maintain sodium well above room temperature.

In the 21 years since President Clinton and current Secretary of State John F. Kerry (who was then a Senator) joined forces to kill the IFR project, creative scientists, engineers and administrators have managed to continue to develop and prove out some of the planned innovations — especially in fuel recycling — that had not yet been completed. People who recognized the unique value of the IFR have also continued to refine their designs, publish papers, publish books [ex: Plentiful Energy and Prescription for the Planet] and give talks around the world to increase understanding of the potential for nearly infinitely sustainable nuclear energy.

GE-Hitachi’s PRISM reactor is one of the more well known commercial variations on the IFR concept, but Terrapower’s current iteration of the traveling wave reactor seems to qualify.

Another intriguing variation is the ARC-100, a small, simple, long-fuel life (20 years between refueling) version that I first learned about when I was preparing to retire from the Navy in 2009-2010. I plan to learn more about its current status and the company’s development plans in the coming weeks.

Despite the impression that the above photos might provide, yesterday’s audience was fairly diverse and included a number of people young enough to make IFRs a reality. I’m more optimistic about our future energy choices today than I have been for quite a while. GABI sustainable nuclear 3 I’m looking forward to the next GABI workshop and want to express my appreciation for their continuing efforts to provide excellent learning opportunities that make it worthwhile to drive to DC every once in a while.

Tale of two Chinas – One surging forward, one retreating

Two stories caught my attention this morning. One came from the Taipei Times, one from the Beijing Review.

The first one focused on a future energy supply prognostication from an American “expert” who has a light educational and professional background in energy technology, manufacturing, engineering, economics and market dynamics. The second one documents recent progress and future planning in a nation led by technologists with a demonstrated record of sustained successes in implementing previous plans.

The Taipei Times report, Nuclear power not cheap, being phased out: expert led with the following two paragraphs.

Former US Nuclear Regulatory Commission chairman Gregory Jaczko yesterday said that nuclear energy is playing an increasingly insignificant role in electricity generation worldwide, and that, contrary to popular belief, it is actually more expensive than a range of methods of energy generation.

At a news conference in Taipei, Jaczko said that the future for nuclear power generation in the US and worldwide is one of “decreasing use and eventual phase-out.”

Atomic Insights readers will understand why I mentally discounted the contents of that story before completing the first sentence.

Dr. Greg Jaczko is not an expert in any topic relevant to predicting the future use of nuclear energy around the world. Thinking, concerned people in Taiwan deserve to know some things about Jaczko that are not included in his publicist’s press kit.

Jaczko is a political animal whose only professional experience before being appointed to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission was serving as a staffer for Representative Ed Markey and Senator Harry Reid. In both jobs, his portfolio included supporting their well-known campaigns against the use of nuclear energy, most likely in return for substantial political support from promoters of competitive energy sources like liquified natural gas, coal and fracked or imported oil.

Using a skillful manipulation of Senate rules, Senator Reid convinced President Bush to appoint him to be an NRC Commissioner. Soon after his inauguration, President Obama followed through on a deal made early in his campaign for Senator Reid’s election support and promoted Jaczko to be the Chairman of the Commission.

Jaczko initiated a number of actions during his seven years on the NRC that added both cost and schedule uncertainty to nuclear plant operations, new nuclear plant design and licensing, and new nuclear plant construction.

He declared unilateral authority on shaky legal grounds in the wake of the tsunami that wiped out the backup power supplies at Fukushima Daiichi units 1-4, severely damaging all four units. He did not keep his fellow Commissioners involved or informed, isolating himself from colleagues with education and professional experience relevant to accident evaluation and response.

Even though no one who was outside of the gates of the Fukushima Daiichi facility was exposed to a harmful dose of radiation, Jaczko initiated a worldwide panic by claiming — without any evidence — that the Unit 4 spent fuel pool was dry and on fire. Based on that imaginary scenario, he recommended the evacuation of all Americans within 50 miles of the facility.

He was asked to resign from his job as NRC Chairman after all four of his fellow commissioners informed the President that he had created a hostile work environment. As predicted by Atomic Insights at the time of his resignation, Jaczko has spent the last several years parlaying his politically appointed position as a former Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission into a career as a professional antinuclear speaker for hire.

There is one part of Jaczko’s evaluation of the future prospects of nuclear energy that is correct. Under rules that he helped to create, nuclear energy projects contain too much schedule and cost uncertainty to attract financing. New projects will not be started without revising the rules. Some projects that are already underway may not be completed unless some rules are reinterpreted. Many operating plants may stop operating long before they are worn out due to escalating requirements that provide no additional safety or performance benefits.

One gross conceptual error that Jaczko and his fellow travelers have made, however, is in their continuing belief that the United States of America has much influence left in the rest of the world. No other country operates under the same rules that Jaczko and a series of similarly disposed closet antinuclear activists have written and imposed on the US nuclear industry.

In early May, several weeks before Jaczko appeared in Taipei and gave his negative prognostication about the future of nuclear energy in the US and the rest of the world, the Beijing Review published a story titled The Year of Nuclear Power: 2015 sees a surge of several new nuclear power projects in China.

That story, instead of pointing to analysis about the future costs of unproven alternatives like carbon capture and sequestration, reports on Chinese actions, achievements and firming plans for future nuclear plant construction.

This year will see the beginning of the greatest number of nuclear power projects in a single year in China since the 2011 crisis, with six to eight units being approved and eight units going online, said Zhang Huazhu, Chairman of the China Nuclear Energy Association (CNEA), at the annual conference of the association on April 22.

Chinese leaders understand that the proven path to cost reductions for any technology includes dedicated action and consistently implemented learning based on growing experience. They recognize that ever changing regulations lead to interruptions in the development path and inevitably add cost and schedule uncertainty.

China took a lengthy pause in new nuclear plant project approvals following the Fukushima events. It invested that time in efforts to understand exactly what caused the problems and in implementing mitigation efforts that would minimize the risk of similar events in their own country. They did not respond precipitously and decide that an event at a forty year old facility located in a geographically unique area proved anything about the existing or potential safety of nuclear technology.

The Chinese nuclear development pause has ended.

As some of its competitors continue their retreat from the nuclear market, Chinese companies see increasing opportunities to export their expertise and experience. It’s worth noting that much of what China knows about nuclear technology originated in France, the United States, or Germany but knowledge, once transferred, becomes the property of the recipient with little means for the teacher to maintain control.

China has been working diligently to learn as much as possible from as many sources as available about nuclear plant design and construction. It has experimented with an almost dizzying array of designs, each with its own advantages and disadvantages.

As the Chinese nuclear industry moves into a greater application of mass production techniques, it seems apparent that one of the winners in the learning process will be the Hualong One design, a 1150 MWe, three loop, dual containment pressurized water reactor that has been strongly influenced by imported French and German design choices.

Another winner will be the pebble bed high temperature gas reactor that will employ multiple reactor heat sources to feed various sizes of steam turbines. That technical path may eventually provide direct coal boiler replacements in thermal power plants that have relatively modern turbines, turning dirty coal power into clean nuclear power without having to rebuild an entirely new facility.

Because of the proven ability of moderately sized pebble bed reactors to withstand a complete loss of coolant flow or a complete loss of coolant pressure without any operator action or automated active system response, those coal boiler replacement projects will be acceptable even if the current power station is in a heavily populated area.

Logically enough, engineers and businessmen who envision the successful replacement of coal boilers in steam power plants also realize that a natural expansion market for their product is to replace coal boilers in steam plants used for industrial process heat for refineries, synthetic hydrocarbon fuel production facilities, and desalination plants.

According to CNECC chief economist Shu, their group is promoting industrial application of high-temperature gas-cooled reactors in Saudi Arabia, Dubai and South Africa. In April, the company signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with South Africa on nuclear power cooperation. It will soon sign an MOU with Saudi Arabia on nuclear power and renewable energy cooperation.

China also has several small, simple reactor designs that may soon be serving in a number of places where 1000 MWe class nuclear plants cannot fit.

Bottom line. Once again Jaczko is wrong. He has arrogantly — and incorrectly — assumed that his efforts in the United States will be influential in other countries. He has ignored evidence and denied reality. He is not an expert and not a representative of the best that the US has to offer the rest of the world.

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