Near the end of 2010, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology released a summary of a report titled The Future of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle as part of its MIT Energy Initiative. The complete report was released a few months ago. The conclusions published that report initiated a virtual firestorm of reaction among the members of the Integral Fast Reactor (IFR) Study group who strongly disagreed with the authors.
Though there are a number of specific recommendations provided in the report, the following quote from the “Study Context” provides a good summary of why the fast reactor advocates were so dismayed by the report.
For decades, the discussion about future nuclear fuel cycles has been dominated by the expectation that a closed fuel cycle based on plutonium startup of fast reactors would eventually be deployed. However, this expectation is rooted in an out-of-date understanding about uranium scarcity. Our reexamination of fuel cycles suggests that there are many more viable fuel cycle options and that the optimum choice among them faces great uncertainty—some economic, such as the cost of advanced reactors, some technical such as implications for waste management, and some societal, such as the scale of nuclear power deployment and the management of nuclear proliferation risks. Greater clarity should emerge over the next few decades, assuming that the needed research is carried out for technological alternatives and that the global response to climate change risk mitigation comes together. A key message from our work is that we can and should preserve our options for fuel cycle choices by continuing with the open fuel cycle, implementing a system for managed LWR spent fuel storage, developing a geological repository, and researching technology alternatives appropriate to a range of nuclear energy futures.
The group of fast reactor supporters includes some notable scientists and engineers whose list of professional accomplishments is at least as long as those of the people who produced the MIT report. In addition, it includes people like Charles Till and Yoon Chang who were intimately involved in the US’s multi-decade long fast reactor development and demonstration program that resulted in demonstrating a passively safe, sodium cooled reactor and an integral recycling system based on metallic fuel and pyroprocessing.
That effort, known as the Integral Fast Reactor, was not just based on an out-dated concept of uranium availability, but also on the keen recognition that the public wants a clear solution to “the nuclear waste issue” that does not look like a decision to “kick the can down the road.”
The IFR discussion group also includes a few aggressive politicians and entrepreneurs who are more skilled at getting their way than the typical research scientist.
Over the past several months, I have been eavesdropping on some interesting conversations between the IFR supporters and their colleagues at MIT. In essence, the MIT study authors have assiduously avoided discussion and tried mightily to change the subject. Ernie Moniz, one of the leaders of the MIT Energy Initiative, when confronted in person on the topic, has often deflected conversation by saying, “Well, I think it is time for drinks at the bar. I’m buying.”
The Science Council for Global Initiatives produced a detailed critique of the MIT paper and published that on Barry Brook’s Brave New Climate blog at the end of May 2011. The discussion has a great deal of interest for technical specialists and is supporting evidence that belies the often asserted falsehood (by people who oppose nuclear technology) that the people interested in developing and deploying nuclear technology speak with a single, almost brainwashed voice.
In recent days, however, the controversy has become more interesting because the IFR discussion group has decided to issue a public debate challenge and to allow people like me to write about that challenge in an attempt to produce some response. Here a background message from Steve Kirsch, an aggressive entrepreneur who never learned to meekly accept “no” for an answer, that led to the issuance of the challenge:
I think your team is dead wrong on your conclusion that we don’t need fast reactors/closed fuel cycle for decades.
Your study fails to take into account
- the political landscape
- the competitive landscape
- the safety issue
- environmental issues with uranium mining
It is unacceptable to the public to not have a solution to the waste issue. Nuclear power has been around for over 50 years, and we STILL HAVE NO OPTION FOR THE WASTE today other than interim dry cask storage. There is no national repository. Without that, the laws in my state forbid construction of a new nuclear power plant.
Other countries are pursuing fast reactors, we are not. Russia has 30 years of commercial operating history with fast reactors. The US has zero.
We invented the best Gen IV technology according to the study done by the Gen IV International Forum. So what did we do with it? After spending $5B on the project, and after proving it met all expectations, we CANCELLED it (although the Senate voted to fund it).
An average investment of $300M a year could re-start our fast reactor program with a goal of actually commercializing our best reactor design (the IFR according the GIF study).
At least we’d have a bird in the hand that we know works, largely solves the waste problem, since the fast reactor waste needs only to be stored for a few hundred years at most, and doesn’t require electric power or any active systems to safely shut down.
As long as we keep spreading around our research dollars and not focusing, we will get nothing done.
Investing lots of money in a project and pulling the funding right before completion is a bad strategy for technology leadership.
MIT should be arguing for focusing and finishing what we started with the IFR. At least we’d have something that addresses safety, waste, and environmental issues. Uranium is cheap because we don’t have to pay for the environmental impact of uranium mining.
We’ve had over 50 years to come up with better ideas. The IFR has proven to be the best of the GenIV designs. We should build one and get on with it, not spend another 30 years looking at other options.
Even if you still think we should be doing research for the next 30 years, the fact remains that computer modeling can only get you so far; the best way to advance our science is to actually build our technologically most advanced designs and improve them. That would be the IFR at this point. You can use this technology both for power generation, for advancing the science, and for materials testing.
Not having such a facility available in this country is a major mistake.
(Aside: I am reporting here and do not agree with all of the statements above, particularly the statement about the environmental impact of uranium mining. End Aside.)
After getting some unsatisfactory, head-patting responses from the “authorities” at MIT, Steve fired back with the following challenge.
The fact is that Russia is moving ahead with building IFRs, a technology we invented, and the MIT study says this is a low priority. That’s the debate.
And it’s an important one since nuclear is a critical piece of our energy mix.
I have an all-star team of people I can assemble to debate your position on the urgency of fast reactors (top DOE brass, nuclear industry, environmental leaders, etc).
You pick the place and time.
…and we’ll let the MIT student audience decide the winner.
The head of MIT’s Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering tried to deflect that specific challenge with a distracting offer to debate a variety of fuel cycle and reactor options in light of lessons learned from Fukushima. The IFR group agreed that such a debate is would not address the topic of interest – should the US set a course of technology development (not laboratory research) based on already existing knowledge that would make demonstrable progress towards a closed fuel cycle?
As I noted earlier, Steve Kirsch, the inventor of the optical mouse, a successful entrepreneur, AND an MIT graduate, is not used to being deflected from a desired course of action, so he elevated the visibility of his challenge to the MIT student newspaper and to the President of the Institute. Here is a copy of his note to Dr. Susan Hockfield:
The MIT EI guys are trying to avoid defending their nuclear fuel cycle report.
Prof Moniz is silent and the head of nuclear would like to change the topic.
This is an important issue because it affects the deployment of nuclear power in the US which is critical for avoiding a climate disaster. This report has worldwide implications.
The challenge is from extremely credible people (most knowledgable nuclear expert in Congress, DOE nuclear management, Argonne National Lab Fellow, and from a famous climatologist who knows more about fast reactors than any of his peers; he has published three books and over 170 peer-reviewed scientific papers)
Can you help me make this debate happen?
Sorry for making trouble here, but that’s what MIT grads are supposed to do…stand up for the truth and call people out if they are wrong, right?
I will also volunteer my auditorium at MIT as the venue if Kresge is not available
Note: There is a Kirsch Auditorium at MIT and the namesake of that Auditorium cannot be told that it is not available for his use.
Stay tuned for more updates on this interesting intellectual duel. Something tells me that my friends who support the Liquid Fluoride Thermal Reactor (LFTR) would “boo” both sides of any resulting debate. As far as I am concerned, if the winning position supports the rapid construction of more fission power plants that do not burn fossil fuels, I am happy.
Update: (July 24, 2011 2:50 PM EDT) I received an email from Steve providing the names of his all-star team:
- James Hansen
- Rep. John Garamendi
- Ray Hunter
- Barry Brook – Director of Climate Science, Environment Institute, The University of Adelaide
- Yoon Chang – Argonne Distinguished Fellow, former Associate Laboratory Director at Large, PhD Nuclear Science, MBA …
Update: (July 25, 2011 5:09 am) Barry Brook at Brave New Climate has published a letter from Steve Kirsch responding to another deflection attempt by the MIT faculty. You can find it at Fukushima, IFRs and an MIT debate. It is an impressive and thought provoking letter. I wish I had written it.
Update: (July 29, 2011 4:05 am) Steve Kirsch has posted an updated debate challenge on The Huffington Post titled Is MIT Afraid to Debate Nuclear Report?. I wish I could share all of the back and forth that I am seeing between MIT and the IFR support group. It is quite entertaining. There is one particular grad student…