Pursuing the unlimited energy dream – history of the Integral Fast Reactor

EBR I Team 1951 - Koch is 2nd from left

EBR I Team 1951 - Koch is 2nd from left

Note:

Len Koch, whose participation in nuclear energy research started in the 1940s, wrote the below open letter to colleagues who are striving to restore interest in the progress that they made in research and development of the Integral Fast Reactor during the period from 1954-1994 the year that President Clinton and Hazel O’Leary, his Secretary of Energy zeroed out all nuclear energy research funding and killed the IFR program.


TO ALL- IFRers,

I continue to be confused and concerned about the apparent “IFR SRATEGY “ to minimize (or ignore) the established history of this concept. It was CONCEIVED in the 1940s by Enrico Fermi and his colleagues. I learned the details in late 1948 when Dr. Fermi presented a Seminar at which he described his vision of nuclear power for the future, with the potential of providing a new energy source for the foreseeable future.

He acknowledged that it had already been demonstrated that the energy contained in the fissionable rare U-235 isotope could be extracted, but its scarcity essentially eliminated it as a long term energy source. He then described his vision of nuclear power which involved extracting the energy from the abundant “ non-fissionable” U-238 isotope.(the 99.3% of natural uranium).

He discussed what needed to be done to establish the feasibility of this concept. He explained that a two step process was required because “non-fissionable U-238” would first be converted to “fissionable Pu-239” and then the Pu would be fissioned. He had concluded that this could be achieved in the fast reactor they had conceived, and in fact such a reactor could produce more plutonium than it would consume. IT COULD “BREED” PLUTONIUM! Fermi cautioned that this concept would also require that it would be necessary to recycle this fuel on a continuing basis to consume the U-238, that it was not a “once thru” option.

He then described an experiment being developed to demonstrate the feasibility of this breeding concept. Needless to say, I was enthralled to hear his description of the experiment I WAS WORKING ON! It became known as the Experimental Breeder Reactor (later it became EBR-I to differentiate it from EBR-II). This reactor, fueled with U-235 as a substitute for Plutonium (because of availability of technology and material), established the feasibility of the “fast breeder concept”.

Even before the successful operation of EBR-I was accomplished, ANL began planning the development and demonstration of the second requirement of the Fermi concept, fuel recycle. It grew as a “multiple discipline” effort coordinated and directed by the Lab Director, Walter H. Zinn, (who had also directed the EBR-I program). The EBR-I had not addressed the fuel recycle requirement and it became the driving force of this second development effort. Power reactor fuel technology was still very much limited to uranium. The Chemical Engineering Division was developing “pyroprocessing”as a possible technology for fast power reactors. The Metallurgy Division was developing fuel fabrication processes and the Reactor Engineering Division was developing Power Reactor concepts incorporating “power reactor features”(as contrasted to the EBR-I concept which resembled a research reactor).

The EBR-II concept grew out of this multi discipline effort. It turned out to be a very bold, radical approach to Fermi’s concept, but it addressed many problems that persisted with sodium systems, The EBR-II concept was built around the fuel cycle which had been selected. This too required initial work with a Uranium alloy fuel AS PRODUCED BY THE FUEL REPROCESSING CYCLE! The Announcement of the Authorization of EBR-II states (March 3, 1958): “The EBR-2 is an integral nuclear power plant. It includes a complete fuel processing and fabrication facility in addition to the reactor plant, heat transfer systems and steam-electric plant”.

Others, notably France and Great Britain, quickly adopted the basic EBR-II reactor system concept of a submerged (in sodium) reactor and primary system. Phoenix in France and PFR in Great Britain. Neither adopted the fuel recycle concept, but received much operational experience. Phenix operated for more than 30 years. Both countries (as well as others) have accumulated much fast reactor experience.

EBR-II began “approach to power” operation in 1964” and operated for about 30 years as an experimental nuclear power plant connected to the grid. It operated on recycled fuel (about 5 complete core loadings) until prohibited by Governmental edict, prohibiting the use of recycled fuel in power reactors. After the prohibition of fuel recycle,“simulated recycled fuel” was manufactured commercially and used, but not recycled. NOTE: in my opinion, this was one of many stupid mistakes that were made in the life of the United States fast reactor development program. We owe Enrico Fermi and his colleagues our deepest apologies!

A few thoughts about the future: I recently read that the DOE has about 700,000 Tons of depleted uranium in storage. I presume that a large part of that material is stored in the typical containers that contain about 14 tons each. In an article I wrote about 10 years ago, I included a photo of a worker checking some of the cylinders containing depleted uranium. A printed note on the photo (which I keep on my desk to retain my perspective ) “Each 14 ton cylinder contains the energy equivalent of about 100 MILLION BARRELS OF OIL”. At 14 tons each, the DOE has about 50,000 of these cylinders in storage, each containing the energy equivalent of 100 million barrels of oil! The rest of the world has more!

Dr. Fermi was right! We have a tremendous source of energy! It is essentially unlimited. And it can be extracted without “burning something and producing CO2”. Will it be used? Certainly! When will it be used? When it is properly evaluated. Probably by others that really need it (everyone now knows what is required).

I believe that China and India may be the most motivated at this time; China because of the need to support its growth in energy demand and India because of growth and the desire to utilize their tremendous inventory of thorium which can substitute for U-238. It is noted that both countries have negotiated with Russia about providing 800 megawatt fast power reactors to them.

I am compelled to raise this discussion because this is not a NEW subject. Fermi and the other PIONEERS in the nuclear power field conceived this real new source of energy more than 60 years ago. It is not new! Much has been learned (but not as much as should have been). This concept was not developed from 1984 to 1994, It was developed from about 1954 to 1994 with much thought preceding it. EBR-II IS THE ONLY “INTEGRAL REACTOR” ever built and operated. It was shutdown, by edict too, in 1994.

I believe that we are performing a disservice to the concept by ignoring the early work. This is not a new, untried concept. It provides another power option with many new characteristics that could be preferable to the existing power plants. If fast reactors are thought to be new and untried they may not be given appropriate consideration. Therefore, I believe that proper recognition of the maturity of this concept will actually add substance to its acceptability.

Leonard Koch


I remain convinced that nuclear fission energy is a gift to mankind from our creator (or nature if you prefer to think of the world as having emerged from a series of random events) that we have uncovered just in the nick of time. There has been a lot of resistance to allowing its development because it is perhaps the most disruptive physical phenomenon ever discovered – even more important than semi-conductors.

Its use threatens the profitability (not the existence) of the world’s multinational fossil fuel industry because most of the profits in that industry come during times when there is a perception that energy is scarce. The resulting bidding for a necessary ingredient of our developed society leads to some incredibly large flows of financial resources to some rather unsavory individuals, companies and countries.

That cash flow slows dramatically when there is more energy supply than energy demand. History is replete with examples of the ups and downs in the fossil fuel industry and the relationship between perceptions of supply and reality of demand.

Integral Fast Reactors, molten salt reactors using thorium, light water breeder reactors using U-233/Th-232, and graphite moderated gas cooled reactors using a mixture of Pu, U, and Th isotopes all provide alternative paths to a future where there is no limit to the amount of energy and power that can be supplied to as many people as there are on the planet for as long as those people want the power.

There is no longer any doubt in my mind that much of the power and temporary success of the antinuclear industry has been enabled by injections of resources (both financial and political) from people with strong interest in keeping human society addicted to hydrocarbon heat.

Rod Adams

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30 Responses to “Pursuing the unlimited energy dream – history of the Integral Fast Reactor”

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  1. Joel Riddle says:

    The salient point that Leonard seems to be trying to hammer home (from my reading) is a key one.

    Integral fast reactors (and I’ll expound that to breeder reactors in general) only failed to be developed due to political edicts, and not due to technical feasibility.

    Presidents Carter and Clinton really hamstrung fast reactor development, with Clinton’s 1994 edict sealing its fate.

    The apparently promising thermal thorium breeder concept which was partially developed in Oak Ridge on a much more meager budget than the fast breeder also fell victim to a somewhat politically-motivated ending, that could possibly be considered fratricide.

    In both cases, the perception of having other alternatives were major, major factors in ending the development programs. There is a parallel today, with the recent shale gas boom. I am hoping that my generation (I was born in the Orwellian year) will avoid being seduced by the “promise” of the meager supplies provided by “clean-burning” natural gas.

  2. DV82XL says:

    Unfortunately we do have a problem with the growing glut of natural gas as that industry finds more and more ways to wring it out of the ground. This surplus is making the economic argument for nuclear very marginal.

    Unless gas is made to pay for its CO2 burden, it will out preform nuclear in the marketplace, and the latter will slowly lose share as old plants are decommissioned. Once this process starts it will be difficult to reverse.

    • Joel Riddle says:

      You may have already seen this, but the U.S. EIA put out an informative posting last Wednesday which points out why gas prices are presently so low.

      It has really taken a perfect storm for all of these factors to come together to cause the present low domestic (U.S.) price.

      Considering solely the price of LNG as a factor, the present domestic gas price will not be sustainable for too long.

      http://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.cfm?id=4810

    • Jeff S says:

      So, basic supply/demand economics that I was taught is that when you get a glut situation, and if the sale price dips close to or below the cost of production, it will force some producers out of the market, at which point the price will go back up to an above-production cost level (perhaps significantly above, hard to say).

      Is there some reason why that wouldn’t apply in this situation?

    • Daniel says:

      @ DV82XL,

      I think going after CO2 with natural gas fracking may not be as creative as going after H2O.

      IN the US, fracking is exempted from the Clean Water Act, Safe Drinking Water Act and National Environment Policy Act.

      Now that should have Green Peace and the Sierra Club worried to death. But they are not. Go figure.

  3. Joel Riddle says:

    Also, another piece of the experience puzzle for sodium-cooled reactors that gets very little publicity is the Sodium Reactor Experiment that was completed in 1957, about 30 miles from Los Angeles. I couldn’t recall ever hearing of this plant until I came across it yesterday.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sodium_Reactor_Experiment

  4. Dan Kurt says:

    re: “Unless gas is made to pay for its CO2 burden” DV82XL

    Pay attention to the news. CO2 induced apocalyptical “global warming,” er no, “climate change,” er no, “fill in the buzz words,” is being discarded. An “emperor’s new clothes” type crash is unfolding month by month.

    Lip service to the CO2 Bugabo is unecessary.

    Dan Kurt

    • DV82XL says:

      The issue of AGW is not really the point here. If gas is not charged for dumping its waste into the commons, for whatever reason, it is a major cost benefit to this fuel. One that will make it more competitive than nuclear.

  5. The task at hand is to solve our energy problems and not to be too concerned with the technology that gets the credit for doing so.
    In the absence of global warming as a civilization terminating problem, shale gas looks good.
    If climate change is, indeed, a global threat in the near term, then IFRs look good.
    In fact, standard floating modular IFRs, volume produced in shipyards and then moved by heavy lift ship along navigable waters for operation in the floating condition, might well be more cost effective that combined cycle gas turbine plants powered by shale gas.
    If so, IFRs will win, with or without global warming, in the energy supply race.

    • rich says:

      Like Kurt says “Lip service to the CO2 Bugabo is unecessary.”

      If a waste basket in your house was on fire would you throw a bottle of vodka on it? If this B/S about “Global Warming” is true then why are we doing the same thing? NG produces 60% of the CO2 of coal in best methods of producing electricity. More Wind/Solar means more NG plants. Fewer Nuclear plants mean more NG plants. Thus, the net reduction in CO2 is ZERO. So if you are in this for AGW, or whatever the annual buzz word is, then NG is not a solution, and only slightly delays the “death of mankind,” which is absurd to the max. If you truly want clean pollution free environmentally friendly power then Nuclear is the answer.

      If this is all about the new “Earth Sustainability” then look at the TRUE average temperature of the Earth over the last 50 million years and it is 15 degrees C warmer than now. What catastrophic things did that do to the Earth? Not satisfied then look at the last 100 million years – about 17 degrees C warmer. What catastrophic things did that do to the Earth? Still not satisfied, then look at the last 200, 300, 400, 500, or 600 years. Over this period(s) it approaches 20 degrees C warmer than now. What catastrophic things did that do to the Earth? And when you look at these charts/graphs, you will notice that for the last 400 million years that the high concentrations always lagged the increase in temperature!

      CO2 tax/penalties/caps, are all about making energy cost more, and/or redistribution of wealth. PERIOD. It is all about “I = PAT.” Look it up in Wikipedia.

      • Rich says:

        TYPO: “or 600 years” s/b “or 600 million years”

        And why does it take over an hour for a post to show up?????

        • Rod Adams says:

          @Rich – I apologize for the frustrating delays in posting comments. There is a technical issue that appears to be associated with caching or spam detection but we have been unable to isolate or repair. I’m still working with the hosting company for a resolution.

      • Brian says:

        It’s not the absolute temperature that climate scientists find concern with, but rather the rate of increase. Things can adapt to different conditions given adequate time. A few degrees change over a few ten thousand years is not that important. The same increase over a few centuries is likely to be catastrophic.

        Certainly, the Earth will do fine as it always has, rather we are more concerned with the organisms on its surface, especially us humans, considering that most of us live by the coast where the impacts would be greatest.

        • Sam B says:

          Exactly, high temperature is the reason for the complete lack of human civilization during the periods you mentioned. Even apes don’t do well in high temperature. Tellingly, at that time, CO2 was also quite high… We have to keep it cool or go back to the trees.

          CO2 is a problem. Here is something to think about:
          theenergycollective.com/josephromm/75958/climate-change-bringing-arctic-europe

          The other truth is that neither the renewables nor sparse fractal gas can satisfy the energy needs of civilized life. It’s “back to the trees” or “offshore to China”. The difference ain’t that big – the last option brings with it China’s huge coal pollution and an immense amount of political and economic negatives.

          Today, the energy deficiency is being masked by exporting production to coal-consuming countries, that’s the worst of all options.

        • Rich says:

          “Certainly, the Earth will do fine as it always has, rather we are more concerned with the organisms on its surface, especially us humans, considering that most of us live by the coast where the impacts would be greatest.”

          Then Nuclear is the answer NOT NG. Nuclear can make H2 for vehicles – NO emissions. Nuclear can charge batteries in cars, Solar panels can’t as your car is where you work, or do we all have to work at night? Even wind is less reliable at night (should I say nonexistent).

          As I said, if you are really worried about AGW then Nuclear is the only answer, anything else is a sham.

        • Michael Pelletier says:

          SamB wrote: “We have to keep it cool or go back to the trees.”

          Hundreds of people are living right now for months at a time in airtight steel cylinders rubbing elbows with a nuclear reactor. I think you grossly underestimate the adaptive capabilities of humankind.

        • Rich says:

          To Sam B
          “Exactly, high temperature is the reason for the complete lack of human civilization during the periods you mentioned.”

          I learned Man had not evolved yet at any of the periods where the temperature was significantly warmer than now. I also learned that many mammals thrived in this climate. Even the charts/graphs modified by the warmest’s support this. Also, that life was much better during the Medieval Warming Period and much worse during the Little Ice Age (Black Plague, Irish famine, etc.) And, regardless, I believe there is ample fissionable material to cool large bubbles of livable areas to a comfortable temperature (like in the science fiction stories), and to take man well past the economical production of power by fusion, which will outlast mankind. The higher CO2 and warmer temperatures would also provide for a more robust agriculture (not worse, as the doomsayers predict) to feed the 100’s of billions of population. By then we will be worrying about an ice age. Or do you propose following I = PAT and severely reducing the P?

          However, with all of the energy needs meet by fission/fusion we will probably hasten the ice age.

      • Insaf says:

        I think the greater concern than temperature increase is the decrease in quality of life that people today have now, compared to 20 years ago. I remember a time when the air I breathed was much cleaner and felt rejuvenating. Now a passing truck on my street releases so much sooty carbon that I am having an asthma attack. I think it is the unavailability of what our children have that really matters the most. The agricultural age was perhaps the greatest hindrance to the environment and then the industrial age. Homogenizing nature does not do well to increase the ecological diversity that maintains the homeostasis of the Earth’s paradise-like state. Scarcity of nutrient-rich food in a highly changing environment makes all animals, not just humans, to exhibit drastically different behavioral traits that lean over to r-selection theory in lieu of K-selection theory. This means that quality of life (good education, good parenting, personal freedoms, and stable, interwoven ecosystems) are sacrificed for quantity of life (unsustainable population growth, lack of creativity causing short-term species-oriented solutions, and favoration of genetic over acquired skills in coping with environmental problems). All this means quality of life is decreased for each person in the group, and this is witnessed in chimpanzees where they were recently shown to exhibit mass homicidal behavior in their deteriorating natural surroundings where before they never exhibited this kind of behavior (http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/moral-landscapes/201103/male-chimps-and-humans-are-genetically-violent-not). I think the question of quality of life is more of an important factor against Natural Gas’s capitalizing over Nuclear than the actual numbers of climate change. The Earth is actually a 5 billion year-old tapestry of life. The biological web at the start when bacteria and Archaea existed had much more functional capacity and potential to produce all the species than is possible today. As such, it is much more important to preserve the balance of environmental factors (soil richness, pH of the oceans, cleanliness of the air) and species interdependence (more forested habitat, predator-prey relationships, decomposers/photosynthesizers/heterotrophs, micro-/macro-environments) than to point to the non-existence of temperature statistics and thereby deny the problem of uncontrollable, irreversible change. When groups of species have died off in the past, whether it be dinosaurs or the pre-Oxygen bacteria, there took place millions of years of environmental upheaval for a new balance to take over the Earth during which time life is not pleasant and certainly not predictable. New situations emerge on the Earth that are hardly based on precedent, so for us as humans to dictate that pollutive effects of fossil fuels is okay is like saying it’s okay if I don’t have any idea of what the future will be like for me and my kids. Quality of life is the issue at stake and Nuclear promises technology that can maintain that quality of life.

        Here’s a good site:
        http://www.freeworldacademy.com/globalleader/ecology.htm

  6. Daniel says:

    Yeah baby !!!

    BERLIN: The cold snap gripping Europe has forced Germany, which last year decided to abandon nuclear power, to restart several reactors taken off line, the daily Handelsblatt reports in its Thursday issue.

  7. Daniel says:

    In Quebec, the fracking industry has a neat practice. Big multi national setup small companies to extract the gas and when the mission is completed they close down the small companies.

    This way no one is liable to clean up or supervise the mess left behind. The government has to do the job, but they are busy doing other things.

    Beautiful.

    • Sam B says:

      Most large legal loopholes are deliberately drilled into the bills. It’s a covert way of picking winners and losers.

    • DV82XL says:

      That’s one of the reasons the fracking industry earned themselves an indefinite moratorium in the Provence.

  8. Jagdish says:

    Costs and benefits of an economic activity or technology differ from time to time and place to place. Right now, nuclear industry is on the rise in Russia, China and other places in Asia.
    IFR technology is breeder/fast reactors and simpler recycling through pyroprocessing. A fast reactor is producing power in Russia with no complaints about unreliability or cost. One power reactor each is under construction in Russia and India. Construction is planned in China. Pyroprocessing has not yet caught on.
    Uranium may have peaked and even discontinued at only a few places but is facing resistance at many places including Australia, the home to maximum reserves. IFR development is inevitable due to world,s energy requirements. The question is “Where”. Conditions are currently the most favorable in China.

    • Rod Adams says:

      @Jagdish

      The only conditions that are more favorable in China than in the US for IFR (or molten salt, or high temperature gas, or even LWR) development are the fact that the government is more favorably disposed to massive quantities of new, emission free power than is our government.

      Instead of enabling the safe development of technology that we understand and invented – and still have tens of thousands of people who are trained in the arts – our government is pandering to the established energy industry by putting as many hurdles and cost increasing barriers as possible in the way of new nuclear power development.

      Today, the NRC is expected to FINALLY get around to issuing its first COL. The staff work supporting that decision was finished at least 3 months ago. The ONLY reason for the delay was to pander to the people who oppose nuclear energy. The ONLY result of the delay was to increase the cost of electricity for the people of Georgia by about $2 million per day for every day of delay.

      Actually, that calculation is probably optimistic because it prices the delays as if they are occurring today at today’s gas prices. The real delay, which will probably never be attributed to the actions of Chairman Jaczko during the period from Oct 2011 – Feb 2012 will actually occur sometime in 2016 or 2017 because schedule changes now will result in a day for day delay in the start up and grid operation of the two units.

      Time is something that no amount of money can purchase back.

      • Joel Riddle says:

        “The only conditions that are more favorable in China than in the US for IFR (or molten salt, or high temperature gas, or even LWR) development are the fact that the government is more favorably disposed to massive quantities of new, emission free power than is our government.”

        I would qualify that by pointing out that China’s economy in general, and thus their demand for electricity, is and has been growing massively. Conversely, in America, electricity demand has been relatively stagnant.

        A big part of that lack of growing demand is the fact that people have been telling us that using too much energy is bad. Never mind the fact that using energy is a necessary part of actually producing useful, tangible products which would be a positive for our overall economy.

        Many U.S. utilities would probably be hammered P.R.-wise in today’s day and age if they were taking actions to actually market/encourage additional usage of their primary product by their existing customers.

        In America (and probably in the West in general), we’ve somewhat been brain-washed into thinking that we have to make do with less. Far too many of our most intelligent people in Western society became/have become ok with being employed in endeavors that add NO REAL VALUE. Almost any endeavor that adds true value requires some amount of energy input.

    • Manic says:

      @Jagdish

      I don’t think you should worry about the opposition to uranium mining in Australia. It will have no effect.

      the resource at olympic dam has, from memory, roughly 100 billion dollars of uranium mixed with half a trillion of copper and gold at the spot price for the pure metals/yellow cake. A little less than the entire GDP of Australia. I’m not a chemist, so i don’t know even the most basic concepts involved in separating the ore into the pure metals, but it’s my understanding that BHP are/going-to-be exporting fairly unprocessed ore, mostly to china. That is, put a whole bunch rock containing copper and uranium on a boat a deliver it to china.

      If there was a ban on uranium mining, it would essentially shut down the mine, unless there was some way to extract the uranium and put it back into the mine. But that would create the largest nuclear waste problem the world could ever logically face.

      Let the Chinese have all the copper and uranium they want while Australia gets the better part of a trillion dollars, OR create a nuclear disaster OR impoverish two nations…

      Also, the mine has a million-tonne uranium resource with a couple of hundred thousand tonnes of proved reserves… Consider that world consumption is something like 70k tonnes. Factoring in recycling of used fuel, decommissioning of weapons and also the huge, almost-guaranteed production increases from olympic dam, Uranium fuel availability won’t be an issue for several decades, even if you discount new production from elsewhere in the world.

      This is why I don’t think breeder reactors will be needed and therefore pursued for several decades in the free(ly trading) world (when one considers only conventional fuel availability).

      (everything is off the top of my head, so the figures are probably not correct)

  9. The difference however with China is huge in some ways. The PRC is no only trying to meet new generation targets but they ALSO want to lower their reliance on coal.

    The US has no energy policy at all. It sucks. Only R&D grants and NRC regulations. Nothing that pushes nuclear.

    Take the semi-public TVA. Their argument is just as you state for the US: energy demand is stagnant. So the TVA states and given as a reason for no more new nukes. But would MY policy be? Instead of trying meet new generation, I think the TVA should announce a 20 year program to replace every single MW produced from coal, over half their generators, with nuclear *because it should be the policy to replace fossil fuel with zero emissions nuclear*.

    The “no new generation” is a pathedic excuse for doing business as usual. We need to change that and say we want to phase out fossil fuel. The idea of lowering the “portfolio” of fossil in any given utility sucks. It actually shuts down ZERO fossil only increases non-carbon generation. We need to do both.

    David