Proving the Principle provides some wonderful and inspiring stories about the days when the United States had a place where atomic tinkerers could explore new ideas and test those ideas with real reactors and real materials. It also provides some insights about the economically and politically motivated reasons that a place with those characteristics no longer exists in the US. It now takes about a dozen or more years to move from initial concept to an operating reactor; at the National Reactor Testing Station, 52 different reactors were built and operated in the period between 1949 and 1970.
Proving the Principle is a history of the Idaho National Laboratory, written in 1999 on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the facility that was, at the time named the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory (INEEL). Here is a quote from the author’s introduction.
“What did they actually do there?” This question has come my way frequently while researching and writing this history. Idahoans seem to have a sense of continuity with their mining and timber roots, their agricultural heritage, and the great themes of the West—Lewis and Clark, the Oregon Trail, Reclamation. But when it comes to their nuclear heritage, connections seem vague. The Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory (INEEL) was set up deliberately in a remote area. Fifty years later, it still is remote, in more ways than one.
I found a fascinating, smoking gun-quality, story at the beginning of Chapter 19.
Between 1965 and 1970, utility companies in the United States ordered a hundred nuclear power plants—all of them moderated and cooled by water. Shaw and the others felt that the torch had passed to industry, and water-moderated reactors should no longer require federally subsidized research1.
The national coal lobby had objected for years that Congress subsidized nuclear power. Congress was unfair, it said, to displace coal plants by financing the research that would make commercial nuclear power possible. The lobby had protested the AEC’s reactor demonstration program. It objected to federal insurance subsidies for utility companies in the event of a nuclear accident2.
The AEC and the JCAE were in a position, therefore, in 1964 to make a concession to the coal industry while at the same time advancing to the next level of the nuclear future, which was to bring liquid-metal-cooled fast-breeder reactors to the commercial market. It could conclude research on water-cooled concepts.
Ideas about the world’s reserves of uranium were still driving reactor development ideas. The global wave of new nuclear power plants would consume more and more uranium, probably depleting it if the demand for energy continued to grow. Water-moderated reactors used uranium extremely inefficiently. Of the uranium in a reactor core, a typical commercial reactor burned about one percent, perhaps a little more. The rest of the uranium—the unfissioned U-235 and the U-238—could be recycled at great expense or discarded as a contaminated waste. A breeder, on the other hand, could produce something valuable—plutonium fuel—out of U-238 and thus convert it into an energy source. The breeder could use nearly all of the uranium. Besides, breeders had the potential of burning up a higher percentage of the fuel to begin with3.
Therefore, Shaw and the AEC shifted their resources to the breeder. Glenn Seaborg, a Nobel laureate chemist who, as part of the Manhattan Project, had made the world’s first plutonium, became chairman of the AEC in 1961. Seaborg was completely committed to the “plutonium economy” of the breeder reactor. He told President Kennedy in 1962 that the way for the United States to maintain nuclear reactor technological preeminence in the world was to perfect the breeder reactor as a safe and commercially viable source of energy. He even suggested that plutonium would eventually replace gold as the standard of the monetary system4.
Washington politics favored the AEC’s new focus on the breeder. But many safety and engineering questions still remained to be solved if breeder reactors were to scale-up to commercial proportions. Physics and chemistry questions remained. As a more distant achievement, therefore, the breeder represented less of a threat to the coal industry and their opposition evaporated. The breeder research program would take many more years.5
It is obvious to me from the history of both the Clinch River Breeder Reactor and the Integral Fast Reactor that the hydrocarbon (coal and natural gas) lobbies never lost track of their recognition that nuclear energy was an existential threat to their profitable enterprises. Whenever the “distant achievement” of a sustainable, affordable, abundant nuclear energy technology seemed to be getting close, they worked their friends in Congress and in various Administrations to move the goal.
Every time I read more about this continuing saga, I am reminded of the classic, often repeated “Peanuts” cartoon where Lucy is holding a football for Charlie Brown to kick. Every time Charlie Brown attempts to kick the ball, Lucy pulls it out of his way and Charlie Brown falls flat on his back. The sadly amusing part of that cartoon is that Lucy continues to reassure Charlie and convince him that it will be different the next time that he tries to kick, and Charlie keeps believing the lie and ending up flat on his back.
I never liked the “Peanuts” series. As a kid, I could never understand why Charlie Brown didn’t simply tell Lucy to take a hike and find someone else to be his place holder.
The analogy with nuclear engineers and scientists is that we need to recognize that the federal government is hugely influenced by a powerful lobby that has no desire to be replaced. Though sold with a completely different cover story, the Department of Energy was established from the start to more firmly establish coal, oil and gas as the primary energy sources.
Take a hard look at the amount of money that is being spent to build demonstration carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) projects and compare it to the piddling amount of money that the House of Representatives included for small modular reactor licensing support. Even that pittance of well under $100 million was removed from the Senate version of the bill. Look at the way that the Senate is trying to redirect any nuclear energy money into “safety and security” for a power system that already has the best safety record and highest security posture of any part of our entire industrial infrastructure.
There is a reason why there is so much federal taxpayer money available for wind, solar, geothermal, fusion and any other hair-brained scheme except nuclear fission. Fission reliably takes market share from fossil fuel. That is its primary strength for most of us, but its primary downfall in the eyes of the establishment. Nukes need to understand that the federal government is the Lucy in this story; it will never be the source of the resources that will enable nuclear to take market share from fossil fuel. We must stop being the gullible Charlie Brown and find ourselves some other place holders.
Fortunately, the federal government is not the only source of cash for a energy investments that yield real returns. Heck, the federal government is mostly broke anyway.
1. (FARET canceled) “AEC Kills Argonne’s FARET in favor of Fast Flux Test Facility,” Nucleonics Week (December 2, 1965).
2. Holl, Anders, Buck, Civilian Nuclear Policy, 6. The Price-Anderson amendment to the Atomic Energy Act capped the coverage for a nuclear accident at $560 million. The government supplied $500 million of the insurance at a nominal cost, while private companies supplied the remaining $60 million at standard rates.
3. See EBR-II Since 1984, p. 26-29 for operating data on EBR-II reactor. According to Richard Lindsay, a water cooled reactor can make plutonium, but not with enough efficiency to make recycling economic for more than about one recycle.
4. William Lanouette, “Dream Machine,” Atlantic Monthly (April 1983): 45.
5. There were several types of breeders. Using combinations of uranium and thorium, the concepts had in common the conversion of otherwise useless metals into new fissionable fuel. See Lanouette, “Dream Machine,” 36.