Responses to BRC on America’s Nuclear Future from fast reactor experts

I am a subscriber to a Google group of fast reactor experts and advocates who strongly believe that the Clinton Administration’s decision to eliminate funding for the Integral Fast Reactor (IFR) project was an enormous political mistake that has had long term impacts on America’s national security and economic vitality.

Recently, two members of the list shared letters that they had written to the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future in response to the recently released report that advocates a continuing program of storing used fuel from the once through fuel cycle while conducting additional research on various options for fuel recycle that might help to lower the cost.

Aside: My analysis tells me that the real cost driver is a lack of adequate volume production. There are several proven processes, including the pyro-processing advocated by participants in the IFR project, that do a good job of recovering useful material from used nuclear fuel. Several of them could be refined to lower costs, but the fuel cost for recycled nuclear fuel is already far less than the fuel cost for natural gas or coal fired power plants. End Aside.

Both of the authors have given me permission to publish their letters. Barry Brook at Brave New Climate has also published them. Though our readership has some overlap, the goal is to more widely spread the ideas and open up as many venues for discussion as possible.


By: William Hannum, PhD. (reactor physics and safety, former Deputy Director General of the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency, Paris, France)

Gentlemen,

As someone who has spent his entire professional career in peaceful nuclear power development, and who has been involved in many of the key aspects of this development, I have followed the work of the Blue Ribbon Commission (BRC) with considerable interest. The July 2011 Draft Report appears to be thoughtful and carefully prepared. While it includes useful recommendations, I believe the priorities are misplaced. The result is a report focused on managing the problem, rather than on resolving it.

The first key recommendation in the report addresses the process for identifying an acceptable repository site, without focusing on why it is currently unreasonable to that expect a new, more gentile effort will be more successful than Yucca Mountain. The problem is not lack of consultation and discussion. As long as the basic criteria are based on a Linear-no-threshold (LNT) approach, applied over a period of 100,000 or 1,000,000 years, there will never be an adequate technical approach for nuclear waste disposal. As an aside, I don’t know what the population is assumed to be 100,000 years from now, but some assumption for that is implicit in the EPA criteria. Until there is agreement on more credible criteria than those applied to Yucca Mountain, it is a waste of time, money and credibility to discuss disposal. Extended storage should be assumed.

Second, the report gives passing reference to “game-changing” technologies. There is one technology, the Integral Fast Reactor (IFR), which is sufficiently advanced that it is ready for a make-or-break demonstration. Not the least of the potential features of fast reactor recycle (as with IFR) is that it eliminates, essentially forever, the need for a second repository. Yet, this is among the lowest of DOE priorities. The draft report implicitly states that DOE has proven itself incompetent to manage the nuclear waste program. Your report fails to recommend that DOE, or some other agency, should realign reactor development priorities and pursue immediate game-changers that will resolve the spent-fuel dilemma. This should be a primary recommendation, not an incidental afterthought.

Secondary comments:

You suggest that substantial lead times may be involved in opening one or more consolidated storage facilities. DOE sites including Yucca Mountain are available and could be used almost immediately.

I agree that revenue streams already dedicated for this purpose should be sufficient to implement the recommendations, including an IFR demonstration, provided we do not waste too much time on early political haggling over a new repository site.

I agree that it may be a practical necessity to establish a new agency for this task. Utilities, as the ones supplying the funding, should have a voice on the Board of Directors (taxation without representation consideration). They would provide practical management experience. They have a dog in this fight.

Semantic quibbles:
The Commission was charged with coming up with a new strategy. The proposed approach is, except for some (useful) administrative changes, more of the same. The text acknowledges that the basic components of the strategy are correct; but have not been adequately implemented.

Section 4 of the Executive Summary refers to Develop a New Permanent Geologic Disposal Facility. This wording presumes no Yucca Mountain.

————

By: Jan B. van Erp, nuclear engineer, Past Vice-Chairman Illinois Commission on Atomic Energy (printable PDF copy the following can be downloaded here)

Gentlemen,

The nation should be most thankful for your willingness to serve and for your effort in addressing one of the U.S.’s most urgent problems. With great interest but with some disappointment, have I taken notice of the content of the July 2011 draft report of your Blue Ribbon Committee: While the report contains many worthwhile considerations, it seems to be short on long-term policy insights and it does not offer a viable solution for the current spent-fuel dilemma. In order to better understand how the U.S.arrived where it is now, some background information may perhaps be useful. I beg therefore to be allowed to digress briefly:

Having dedicated my working career to nuclear energy since 1957, both in industry and in research, it has been with profound sadness that I have witnessed the decline of the U.S.global leadership in this area. This decline started in the second half of the 1960s when the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), later followed by ERDA and DOE, embarked on a program of micro-managing rather than providing broad policy outlines as had been the earlier practice. Among the main presumed justifications for this change was the fact that EBR-II (a first-of-a-kind project) had been built with a cost overrun of about 20% and with a delay of around two years on its original estimated schedule. Those who were considered responsible for this EBR-II “debacle”, were frozen out and their accumulated experience was lost to a large extent. From then on, abject servility was required from any organization and persons dealing with AEC/ERDA/DOE. The follow-up project, the Fast Flux Test Facility (FFTF), was finally built with a delay of over ten years and a cost overrun of about 1,000%. It never operated as intended and was shut down. It stands in the Richland,WA area as reminder of ‘great insight’ and ‘excellent management skills’.

The next major step in the decline of U.S.nuclear leadership occurred in 1977 when President Carter declared that the U.S would thence forward forego the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel and that the fast breeder program was to be terminated. As a follow-up, the Clinch River Breeder Reactor (CRBR) project was shut down.

Shortly after President Carter’s declaration, a large international conference on nuclear fuel cycle development was held in Salzburg,Austria. The full papers had been approved several months earlier (i.e. prior to Carter’s policy change) and were available in printed form at the conference, including those prepared by a large delegation of U.S.scientists / engineers. These U.S.papers explained in detail the road to be followed for developing nuclear fission technology into an inexhaustible source of energy in the service of humanity, as had been foreseen earlier by great scientists such as Enrico Fermi and Walter Zinn.

As a participant in this international conference, I had the very sad experience of having to be a witness to the public humiliation of all the participating U.S.scientists by their own government, which forbade the distribution of any of their printed papers. Furthermore, all U.S. scientists / engineers were “invited” into a meeting room (i.e., instructed to attend) where they were told in no uncertain terms not to speak in support of any programs that were not in line with the new U.S. policy. I believe it may be difficult to find another example in modern times in which an industrial nation has publicly humiliated and insulted its own leading scientists in this way. For a democratic nation to ‘throw around its weight’ at an international scientific conference and to interfere with the free exchange of information by denying its citizens the right to express their opinions, should certainly be cause for some misgivings and questioning.

The final blow to U.S.nuclear leadership came in the 1990s when, under President Clinton, the last surviving vestiges of fast-neutron fission technology development were killed and when the EBR-II reactor, after more than 30 years of flawless operation as a test reactor, was shut down for misguided political reasons. As a consequence of this, the U.S. lost its only in-pile test-bed for fast-reactor fuel development and closed off a very successful road which had already led to burn-up levels with metallic fuel that are about five times higher than those achieved in light-water reactors.

I hope you will accept my apologies for bringing up this short historical account which is not intended to cast aspersions on, or imply any culpability of, the current staff of DOE, but is solely aimed at ‘learning-from-the-past’ by recalling how a combination of misguided-policy decisions and a lack of insight, has resulted in the current dilemma. If the U.S. had not embarked on a self-destructive course of action and if it had followed the ideas of Enrico Fermi and Walter Zinn, as further detailed in numerous publications by leading U.S. and non-U.S. scientists and engineers (including, Bernard Cohen, Leonard Koch, Charles Till, Georges Vendryes from France, Wolf Haefele from Germany, etc.), the U.S. could have found itself still among the global nuclear leaders. As it is, other nations (France,Russia,Japan,India,China) are now leading in nuclear energy development for peaceful purposes, and the U.S.will find itself more and more relegated to the position of observer, no longer capable of affecting global nuclear policies.

Rather than giving detailed comments on your report, I hope you will allow me to make some suggestions as to the future road to be followed by the U.S. These suggestions are presented in bullet format for the sake of brevity. I shall be glad to elaborate on them, if so desired.

Appendix

Why the U.S. needs to re-start Development of Fast-Neutron Fission Technology

  • Development of Fast-Neutron Fission Technology (FNFT) needs to be re-started, among others to:
  • offer a solution to the nuclear waste dilemma,
  • reap the full benefits of nuclear energy,
  • restore some of the U.S. global nuclear leadership role.
  • Reprocessing of spent fuel constitutes an integral part of FNFT. The recommended reprocessing technique is pyro-electrolysis which differs from the currently followed aqueous reprocessing in that no water is used. Pyro-electrolysis offers great advantages, over aqueous reprocessing including:
  • enhanced proliferation resistance,
  • sharp separation of actinides from other radioactive fission products, thus reducing the radioactivity of waste to a historical time scale of some 400 years,
  • low probability for reactivity incidents (this could be relatively high for the aqueous version in case of fast reactor fuel with considerably higher fissile content than LWRs).
  • It is recommended to re-start the development of pyro-electrolysis no later than 2012, including its adaptation to LWR oxide fuels. This promising technology has been proved on a laboratory scale but needs further development to upgrade it to commercial scale This program should have highest priority.
  • It is recommended to start construction of a fast-reactor demonstration plant (e.g., PRISM, developed at GE), in view of the fact that (subsequent to the shut-down of EBR-II) no in-pile test bed is available in the U.S for fast reactor fuel development.
  • Pyro-electrolysis is highly resistant to proliferation in that Pu-239 is not separated out in pure form at any stage of the process, but will remain mixed with other actinides, preventing its use as weapons material. Furthermore, the pyro-electrolysis and fuel-fabrication plants may be co-sited with the electricity generating plant (as suggested in the IFR concept, developed by Argonne National Laboratory), thus further enhancing proliferation resistance by obviating off-site transportation of spent fuel. Only fission products would leave the site.
  • Pyro-electrolysis is capable of achieving a high degree of separation of the long-lived actinides, which can be ‘burned’ in the fuel. Consequently, the remaining radioactive waste (i.e., fission products) will decay to background radiation levels in about 300 to 400 years, rather than in hundreds of thousands of years.
  • FNFT is capable of fissioning all uranium (i.e., both uranium recovered from spent fuel as well as depleted uranium left at the enrichment plants), thus able to harvest about 100 times (i.e. 10,000%) more energy from the same amount of mined uranium. Spent fuel, rather than being radioactive waste, is a valuable asset for the production of energy.
  • The currently available spent fuel and the stored depleted uranium from enrichment plants, if used in FNFT, suffice to supply all needed energy for hundreds of years, without any additional mining being required.
  • Additional mined uranium (if necessary from lower-grade deposits and/or from the sea) will make FNFT an inexhaustible source of energy, placing it in the same category as wind- and solar-energy, which are often referred to as ‘renewable’.
  • Fast reactors in conjunction with reprocessing can lessen the amount of the spent fuel and drastically reduce the volume of radioactive waste, which will consist only of fission products with relatively short half-lives.
  • Fast reactors with metal fuels offer certain valuable inherent safety-enhancing characteristics that are not present in the current generation of commercial nuclear power plants. This was shown to an international audience in the 1980s during a demonstration at EBR-II in which a number of postulated ‘accidents’ were simulated, including Loss-of-Flow without scram and Loss-of-Heatsink without scram.
  • Aqueous reprocessing is prone to nuclear-weapons proliferation because it is capable of separating out plutonium that has the chemical purity needed for weapons. The current generation of commercial nuclear power plants (referred to as ‘thermal reactors’ of the Light-Water Reactor type – LWR) is capable of using less than 1% of mined uranium. Apart from this being extremely wasteful, it leads to large quantities of spent fuel and even larger quantities of depleted uranium.
  • The once-through fuel cycle, as currently applied in the U.S., is not sustainable. Even if there may be adequate supplies of uranium available at economically viable price levels for the coming decades, to continue accumulating spent fuel as a legacy for future generations, is not acceptable. Furthermore, without reprocessing, a large number of spent-fuel storage facilities of the size ofYuccaMountain will have to be built.
  • Increased global capability of uranium enrichment will be prone to nuclear-weapons proliferation, as has already been shown (Pakistan,Iran,North Korea). Such an increase will be required if the once-through fuel cycle were to be continued in conjunction with a world-wide increase of nuclear energy use. However, once FNFT is available, no further extension of enrichment capability would be necessary.
  • It is ironic that President Carter’s intention of preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons by limiting nuclear energy generation to the once-through fuel cycle, may actually have resulted in enhancing the likelihood of proliferation by requiring increased global enrichment capability.
  • World population growth, together with the need to reduce CO2 emissions and the fact that fossil fuels are a limited resource to be left for future generations, will inevitably require an increased global use of nuclear energy. It is important that the U.S. will again become an active and technically competent participant in steering this development on the right course. A technically incompetent U.S. will undoubtedly be relegated to the role of passive observer. The Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) initiative should be re-started.

Aside. I remain convinced that “non-proliferation” is a cleverly disguised cover story designed by politically and economically savvy people who understand the fact that allowing nuclear fuel to be recycled takes away one of their most effective weapons in their battle to maintain the dominance of fossil fuel energy in the world’s economy.

One of the ways I came to that conclusion is by recognizing that halting proliferation by not recycling used fuel in the United States, a country that already owned several thousand nuclear warheads and a huge inventory of weapons material, is about as effective as helping all of the obese people in your state slim down by putting yourself on a diet.

It is no excuse to claim that the consequence of doubling US coal production in the period since Carter’s decision was “unintended.” It was not only a predictable result of essentially halting nuclear energy development, it was the intended consequence by the clever people who designed the battle against the “plutonium economy” because it threatened the “carbon economy.” They knew that stating the battle in those terms would be a loser, so they developed a different sales pitch.

Clinton’s natural gas focused administration just continued the battle, but the oil industry focused Administrations between those two did not result in any significant nuclear wins either. End Aside.

About Rod Adams

17 Responses to “Responses to BRC on America’s Nuclear Future from fast reactor experts”

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  1. George Carty says:

    Have you thought about publishing a list of anti-nuclear politicians on the Web, with information on which fossil fuel related companies have contributed to their election campaigns?

    • John Englert says:

      It might be easier to compile a list of pro-nuclear politicians. Nuclear power’s ability to stockpile months to years worth of fuel means that politicians with short election cycles aren’t able to derive much power from manipulating its supply. Uranium as a mineral also doesn’t have the same magnitude in royalty payments for its extraction as fossil fuels do.

  2. Joel Riddle says:

    There is one thing I noted from the appendix of Jan van Erp’s letter. In the bullet that “Aqueous reprocessing is prone to nuclear-weapons proliferation”, he noted that aqueous reprocessing is capable of separating out plutonium that has the chemical purity needed for weapons.” (emphasis added by me)

    He did not mention that it lacks the isotopic purity needed for weapons of significant yield, due to there being significant non-fissile Pu-240 amongst the chemically separated plutonium.

    I’ve always been a fan of the following link on this topic.

    http://depletedcranium.com/why-you-cant-build-a-bomb-from-spent-fuel/

  3. Wayne SW says:

    What are the market dynamics for recycled vs. once-through fuel use? I seem to recall hearing or reading somewhere that right now the market favors the once-through fuel cycle. If that is true, then unless we introduce artificial distortions in the uranium market, there will be an economic incentive to stick with once-through.

    • Joel Riddle says:

      The economic incentives will come in one of two forms.

      1. Having enough nuclear capacity worldwide for the price of U to increase substantially. This would be a good situation for nuclear in general, regardless of the fact that it would represent an increased fuel cost.

      2. Having the cost dispositioning spent fuel be increased or somehow accounted for differently than the present 1 mill/kW-hr disposal fee that utilities pay.

  4. donb says:

    Reading these letters, especially the one by Jan B. van Erp, fills me profound sadness. Seen in them is the story of how misguided political decisions have worked to turn our country away from the path of economical, clean, safe and abundant energy. This wrong turn contributed to the exodus of manufacturing from our shores and made a significant contribution to the economic mess in which we now find ourselves.

    I was particularly stuck by Mr. van Erp’s descriptions of how researchers were forbidden (for political reasons) to deliver their papers at the conference on nuclear fuel cycle development held in Salzburg, Austria. This is an action worthy of the commissars of the old Soviet Union.

    Yucca Mountain is essentially a triumph of fear — Spent nuclear fuel is really scary, and we will never be able to do anything with it. The Linear, No Threshold theory of radiation exposure is the truth. So let’s come up with a gold-plated solution to dispose of the spent fuel we have and make ourselves feel a little less scared.

    We have a society where the effort to avoid specific small threats overwhelms those who would take calculated risks to produce large-scale, general good. This attitude has become enshrined in government at such places as the NRC, where seemingly it is accept to exert all efforts to reduce a miniscule perceived risk in a nuclear power plant, all the while, the grand (though less specifically identifiable) risk of not licensing nuclear plants and instead having the power come from more dangerous sources is ignored.

    Unfortunately, this nanny-state attitude, misguide though it may be, continues to be a successful way to be elected to office. It will require a number of forward-thinking individual exerting Herculean efforts to change government for the better. The only alternative is for things to get so bad that the majority of voters will want to vote for someone showing real leadership in the area of energy.

  5. Fast reactors are much less scalable than thermal reactors because they require a large mass of fissionable materials to start up a chain reaction. For example, if you start a fast reactor with reactor grade plutonium, you may need as much as18 tons per GW of power output. On the other hand thermal breeders can be started with one tenth the amount of fissionable material. Thus the “fast reactors will save us” song seems doubtful. On the other hand you can build thermal breeders and much larger numbers.

  6. crf says:

    Ploriferation of gas and coal plants has been one consequence of conflating civilian nuclear power with nuclear weapons policy. Oh, and look at the result: a climate and energy and economics problem that is getting worse and worse.

    And, not surprisingly, we still have nuclear weapons proliferation problem. And I can’t see how you’d argue that it is not going to get worse, as conflicts over scarce energy and other resources increase, with countries without weapons often feeling threatened.

  7. Daniel says:

    President Obama just finished his speech.

    In with bio fuels (??)

    Out with mercury exposure (Coal is out)

    Not much else on the energy front to decipher.

  8. Brian Mays says:

    One problem with the Integral Fast Reactor concept is that General Electric essentially owns the technology. Sadly, GE seems more interested in selling wind turbines and gas turbines than nuclear reactors these days. I guess there’s more money to be made in being part of the big natural gas hype and in selling equipment for expensive tax-dodges.

    Given Immelt’s cozy relationship with the Obama administration, if GE was serious about its PRISM technology, I would expect there to be much more interest and enthusiasm in fast reactors from the DOE and the BRC. The last time we heard anything serious about PRISM in the US was the result of the Bush administration’s GNEP program. The consortium led by GE included the PRISM technology as part of the package that it proposed to the DOE for this program.

    It’s a shame that Congress failed to fund GNEP sufficiently. I guess that GNEP came along at just the wrong time (2006) … right before a change in the control of Congress. The change in administrations in the White House less than three years later was the final nail in the coffin.

    • John Englert says:

      I’ve wondered if it would be more affordable for American citizens to pay for new nuclear plants and give them away to utilities than continue to pursue a course of heavily subsidized renewable tech.

    • Rod Adams says:

      @Brian – I agree with you. Several times I have put Eric on the spot by asking him why his $157 billion per year revenue employer cannot simply fund a Prism with their own cash if the technology is so well developed.

      Conversely, if they do not want to pay for the development, they should release the IP that the taxpayers have already paid to develop.

    • Daniel says:

      Let me make a analogy between IFR and the airline industry. The US has turned its back on IFR during the Clinton years. This decision will set the technology back a long time but it will not die as other countries will eventually pick up on it.

      The US once turned its back on the ‘Concorde’ technology and those planes are now history. But what a breakthrough: going from New York to London in 4 hours instead of 8. Now, we have to settle for airline travel standards that have not changed much since the 1960′s.

      What a waste.

  9. Atomikrabbit says:

    Some antis have been doing their IFR homework by cherry-picking quotes out of “Technical Options For The Advanced Liquid Metal Reactor”, published by the U.S. Congress Office of Technology Assessment in May 1994 as part of their technical justification for pulling the plug on IFR.

    They have added the following unrebutted statements to the Wiki article on the subject:

    Proliferation risks are not eliminated. “The plutonium from ALMR recycled fuel would have an isotopic composition similar to that obtained from other spent nuclear fuel sources. Whereas this might make it less than ideal for weapons production, it would still be adequate for unsophisticated nuclear bomb designs. In fact the U.S. government detonated a nuclear device in 1962 using low-grade plutonium typical of that produced by civilian powerplants.” “If, instead of processing spent fuel, the ALMR system were used to reprocess irradiated fertile (breeding) material in the electrorefiner, the resulting plutonium would be a superior material, with a nearly ideal isotope composition for nuclear weapons manufacture”

  10. gallopingcamel says:

    Brian Mays,
    There are already signs that GE’s wind turbine business is in big trouble. They are laying off people in Norway and elsewhere.

    It would be great if they showed some sense of urgency with PRISM but my guess is that they are holding back in the expectation favorable treatment from Uncle Sam. Immelt supports Obama and vice versa.

  11. Rod:

    I’m so glad to see this conversation going on!
    (I’m sorry I missed it before now – vacation, you know…)

    The two letters to the BRC, – although they probably fell on deaf ears- along with all the comments here, have been excellent. Not being a nuclear guru – just a neutral clean energy advocate who believes in the potential of nuclear-generated power for the overall, long-term benefit of humanity and the planet – I have never been able to understand WHY this country doesn’t want to move beyond LWRs and reap the benefits of obviously better technology such as that offered by fast reactors.

    I beat my head on the walls in Washington, D.C. regarding this subject for 5 years at Hyperion Power. I believe just a relative few truly got the message and saw the potential – the rest were mired in their own political entanglements, ambitions, ambivalence, laziness, didn’t want to rock the boat, etc.

    We must overcome this inertia! The U.S. is just getting further and further behind in nuclear energy leadership. We will not prevent other countries from taking the reigns and leaving us in the dust. Other countries are becoming more and more nuclear independent. They will not NEED the U.S. anymore – our technology OR our permission. The only way to monitor against nefarious nuclear activity is to be on the ground, cooperating in every country, where nuclear energy is being pursued. But, how can we do that if our own regulatory and political system prevents us from developing desirable improved technologies?

    Keep up the good work Rod – and all the rest of you that are standing up for fast reactors and true solutions for spent fuel.

    Deborah Blackwell, APR
    IX Power Foundation

    • Joel Riddle says:

      Deborah,

      I hand-delivered the 2nd letter to the former director of the DOE’s Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, since it related somewhat closely to that position. I need to try to follow up with him soon and see whether he actually read it or not and has any thoughts on it.

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