Cloistered nuclear scientists needed Sun Tzu's advice - "Know your enemy" 1

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  1. Sadly, I’m afraid that there may still be some inter-Laboratory rivalries to this day, based on some brief tidbits I’ve heard from a few friends. It’s the whole “not invented here” syndrome.

  2. The flaw in Rod’s logic is that nuclear is not vastly superior to other sources of power. Making electricity with nukes is ‘vastly superior’ to not having enough electricity because of the limitations of other sources of power.

    What is the quip about France? No coal, no oil, no gas, no choice!

    Just as anti-nukes make up reasons to be against nuclear, making up reasons to be pro-nuclear is just a silly.

    Hydro is limited by the amount of water. Coal and gas are limited by air pollution and transportation of fossil fuel. This leaves room for nuclear which expect to increase because safety risk is very small.

    In the end, nuclear is just another good choice.

    1. Nuclear power is vastly superior because it is much cheaper in the long term, has far less external costs than other options, and is in the long term a vastly greater energy resource.

    2. @Kit P

      The fundamental characteristics of nuclear fission are superior by many orders of magnitude compared to the characteristics of the competition.

      Uranium fission releases 2 million times as much energy per unit mass as hydrocarbon combustion.

      Uranium fission does not release ANY NOx, SOx, CO, CO2 or fine particulates.

      Uranium and thorium are both abundant enough to supply all of human society’s energy needs for several millennia.

      I have been unable to find any instances of anyone that has been injured or killed by exposure to the waste products of a commercial nuclear reactor because those potentially dangerous waste products are carefully contained with nearly 100% efficacy. Every year, there are several hundred people around the world who are killed by carbon monoxide poisoning from improperly designed or operated hydrocarbon combustion facilities.

      1. I have an all electric house so I do not use ‘improperly designed or operated hydrocarbon combustion facilities’ to heat my house or hot water.

        Rod is confusing power, that is electricity, with heat. So I agree that having an electric hot water heater reduces risk of carbon monoxide poison in my house. The following is either dishonest or ignorant.

        “Every year, there are several hundred people around the world who are killed by carbon monoxide poisoning from improperly designed or operated hydrocarbon combustion facilities.”

        I suspect the Rod is not very familiar with a systematic approach to safety. What is the root cause of each fatality? There is currently an increase carbon monoxide poisoning. They usually occur during power outages when people with more money than brains go out an by gas powered generators. They also put at risk workers repairing power lines by not opening the main breaker to the house.

        I will agree that nuclear reactors are a vastly superior to fuel oil on subs.

        1. @Kit P

          A poorly located gasoline powered generator qualifies for my description of an “improperly designed or operated hydrocarbon combustion facility.” Read carefully, I was not talking about a well operated commercial facility; I realize that there are virtually no injuries or deaths at those. However, if someone chooses to buy and operate a gasoline generator, somewhere somebody failed to deliver electricity. That is the real root cause of the tragedy and it is part of what I am talking about when I say that lack of sufficient electricity is often fatal.

  3. “…their brilliant technological innovation, the Integral Fast Reactor (IFR)”

    Its brilliant until “that can never happen” happens and then you will IFR sites abandoned because its an operational nightmare:

    But hey, thanks for Till and Chang’s sweet views on scientific welfare.

  4. And if you need another amusing example of “we’re brilliant Phd’s” living in a dreamworld just look at the disaster called ‘Rational Drug Design’ that sunk Big Pharma.

  5. If the scientists had followed Clinton during primary season in 1992, they would not have been surprised. Nor should they have been surprised after Clinton picked Gore as his running mate.

  6. The original incentive to building a fast-spectrum reactor burning uranium-plutonium was to make not just enough plutonium to keep things burning, but lots of extra plutonium to start other reactors or for other purposes. Fast-spectrum reactors, like the IFR, take a lot more fissile startup material than thermal-spectrum reactors, because fissile material in fast reactors is less likely to cause fission in the first place (smaller fission cross section for fast neutrons).

    Now, nearly all of the reactors in the world today do something else entirely. They burn up the very small fraction of uranium that is naturally fissile (U-235) in a thermal-spectrum reactor. They don’t worry about the fact that this is especially wasteful of uranium and could be considered unsustainable. Economics currently favors this approach and so they take it.
    To attract and hold the attention of decision makers and the public, we need to show how operating a thorium-burning, thermal-spectrum reactor like LFTR, or a plutonium-burning, fast-spectrum reactor like the IFR, would make good, bottom-line sense to them and lead them to an improvement in profitably and economic performance over the U-235-burning light-water reactors of today.
    From the outside looking in the US National Laboratories may look like dream worlds, only loosely coupled with imperatives that drive normal commerce outside the Lab gates. Having spent my career at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, I do not think this characterization is fair. It is true that some of the most gifted scientists alive, particularly in the field of nuclear science and engineering, were employed by National Laboratory for at least part of their careers. It is true that there was perhaps an embarrassment of intellectual riches and raw intellectual talent present at the Labs, particularly during their early formative decades of nuclear pioneering. If you were looking for innovation and pioneering research, I think the Labs can stand on their record in those years. If you are looking for commercial nuclear technology that made it out of the R&D environment of the Labs and into actual power plants that produce power for ratepayers, then the record is less sanguine. During the best years at LLL (now LLNL) we were exceptionally well led by, in many cases, the most able scientists and innovators in the field of nuclear design. LLL was shaped by the talent and character of Dr. Edward Teller. Dr. Teller’s insistence on high standards of honesty and accurate assessments and research shaped all of the work and programs that were undertaken at LLNL during the early decades. Can one man shape the creative efforts of a major Laboratory (composed of thousands of individuals)? I would answer that yes, in the case of LLL and Dr. Teller during the pioneering decades of nuclear innovation, one individual could set a high standard and insist on that standard, with no tolerance for less.
    The situation may have parallels to the experience of the nuclear navy under the guidance of a great admiral, Hyman Rickover. One man can leave his stamp on the efforts of thousands and lift the efforts of all, at least for a time. Projects pursued by LLL during the pioneering decades were not dream worlds or pie in the sky. An unbiased recounting of the very practical achievements and innovations in nuclear design of the Lab during the first decades, under Teller’s influence, would still deserve respect (and mercifully I will not recount them here unless demanded to do so). The National Labs are still extraordinary jewels of scientific excellence, but as is the case with many strengths currently possessed by America, at this time largely squandered though weak and ineffective leadership from above. The Labs have been kept intact, but there is no concentrated research focus for science in the national interest that drove work in the early decades. Today, much of the capacity of the Labs is consumed in “maintenance of capability” rather than going out and designing new things of importance that have never been.
    I think Rod has understated the strengths and best features of the National Laboratories in his post.

    1. @Robert

      I have a great deal of respect for the research accomplishments of the national laboratories. However, since at least 1978, the American public has been supplying those labs with substantial amounts of hard earned taxpayer dollars to solve our energy supply problems.

      That investment has done virtually nothing to alter the balance of fuels that supply our industrial economy. That is not due to a lack of scientific excellence; it is due to a lack of balance that mixes some marketing and business acumen in with the scientific talent.

      My model for technical development and amazing breakthroughs is the high technology industry. By mixing in some people like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Larry Ellison, Guy Kawasaki, Jonny Ives and thousands of others, none of whom are brilliant scientist, Silicon Valley has done far more to change the way that we live and the way that business operates than the national lab system has.

      What I am trying to say in this post is that cloisters can be dangerously insular and vulnerable to attack.

      1. However, since at least 1978, the American public has been supplying those labs with substantial amounts of hard earned taxpayer dollars to solve our energy supply problems.


        Most of the DOE budget is for national security priorities. The shift may have been from design and build to stewardship, but weapons are at the core of their efforts. Sure there are the power labs such as ANL and INL, but most of their energy related research has been towards managing waste. If we really want a department of energy that focusses on solving energy problems, then we should separate NNSA from DOE while at the same time try to develop technical leaders who are a lot less risk adverse.

  7. Rod’s first quote about integrity reminded me of this comment on Barry Brooks’s blog regarding this book.

    {darryl siemer, on 9 January 2012 at 10:43 AM said:

    …During my three decade career as an INEL/INEEL/INL “Consulting Scientist”, I never read/reviewed any official ANL technical document which candidly addressed that concept’s potential drawbacks – Dr. Mcfarlane’s essay certainly didn’t break with that tradition & neither does “Plentiful Energy”.

    The latter is a well-written, genuinely interesting, and informative book. However, its authors perpetuate a policy (?) of filtering-out facts (i.e., any mention of ORNL’s almost two decade-long, molten salt thorium breeder reactor program) inconsistent with the notion that ANL’s IFR represents the only sensible approach to achieving “plentiful energy”.

    One of the biggest hurdles facing advocates of a US nuclear renaissance is the credibility of documentation produced by R&D organizations… }

    Reactivity is sometimes measured in units of dollars for convenience. Fast reactors generally have over $4 in excess reactivity, and it would be much more if the non fissile atoms were removed. To put that in perspective, Sandia Labs fast burst reactor was limited to a maximum excess reactivity of 13.4 cents, which drives it to 500C in 100 microseconds. See pages 71, 127, 140.

    The energy yield of a criticality depends largely on the rate of reactivity insertion.

    Safety analysts only consider gravity as the source of energy to change the core configuration. That limits velocity and reactivity insertion rates. Other possibilities include objects falling from high up in the reactor vessel, hydrogen explosions (sodium water reactions produce hydrogen), multiple criticalities, extreme earthquakes, and unidentified mechanisms.

    Diluting plutonium with non fissile atoms on the atomic scale, to the point where the reactivity of the fuel is barely sufficient to maintain a chain reaction with optimum geometry in a molten salt reactor core, is a safer way to extract the enormous energy stored in uranium 238.

  8. The large sodium fast breeder reactor is the ultimate socialist reactor. It has maximum theoretical potential but minimum real-world promise. Large sodium fast breeder reactors likely could not be deployed anywhere except with extensive government support.

    According to Cahalan, (, numerous large and small sodium fast reactors have had serious problems after they have been built. EBR-1 had a reactivity accident leading to partial fuel melt in November 1955 (Cahalan, pg. 54). In October 1966, Fermi 1 had partial flow blockage and partial fuel melt, not only to the assembly in which flow was blocked, but in two adjacent assemblies; one assembly had further damage, leading to years of downtime (ibid, pg. 57). The BN-350 had major sodium leaks in a sodium/water heat exchanger with “extensive damage” during a period ending in 1974 (ibid, pg. 69). Phenix had several large negative reactivity excursions due to “unknown reasons” during a period between 1989 and 1990 that are surmised to be related to core movement (ibid, pg. 71). Since the core of a SFR is not in it’s most reactive configuration, the French were lucky. In 1987, Superphenix suffered a sodium leak in the fuel storage tank into it’s guard vessel that led to the conclusion that the tank could not be repaired and had to be replaced with alternative fuel handling equipment, as well as a 2 year outage (ibid, p. 79). The conclusion was that proper materials had to be used for high temperature sodium service. Presumably, wholesale replacement of fuel handling equipment with alternative means cost a great deal. Monju suffered a sodium leak in the secondary loop in 1995, leading to a 13 year outage (ibid, p. 89) that was complicated by predictable anti-nuclear litigation. Judging from this extensive past experience, problems with any SFBR appear likely.

    According to NUREG-1368, the IFR (in it’s PRISM incarnation), has potential reactivity insertions of over $100 per second, potential k infinities of >1.9, potential k effectives of up to 1.28, and potential energy releases of up to 500 MJ in a HCDA if the coolant is globally voided for any reason, for instance, by boiling due to loss of flow without scram (NUREG-1368, pgs. 15-27 through 15-30.) In fact, 1368 states: “The positive sodium void worth is a concern in the passive safety argument. Because of it, one must qualify any characterization of the PRISM reactor response as ‘passively safe’ by pointing out that this is conditional on the sodium remaining below the boiling temperature. Should sodium boiling begin on a core-wide basis under failure-to-scram conditions, the reactor would be likely to experience a severe power excursion and a potential HCDA. GE states that the PRISM reactor vessel and its closure can safely accommodate the anticipated HCDA without loss of structural integrity, disengagement of the rotatable plug from the reactor closure, or expulsion of sodium. Due to the highly diverse reactor shutdown systems and the reactive feedback-based passive reactor runback mechanism, wide-scale sodium voiding is highly unlikely, though not impossible” (ibid, pg. 4-31).*

    Even if the risk of the HCDA could be minimized, it would not be surprising if other local in-core phenomena such as an obstruction of flow, as per the Fermi experience, could lead to localized voiding and potential core damage, likely leading to years or decades of repair if not outright loss of plant. Investors in a potential IFR stand to lose a substantial part of their investment in a fraction of a second if the sodium boils even if the damage is localized to the reactor itself. Indeed, experience with SFRs indicates that there are plenty of other snafus that can occur resulting in years of downtime for the IFR reactor. Perhaps this is why GE made their implementation of the IFR modular – one module can be online (if the moon and stars align), another can be down for refueling, and the other can be undergoing decades of repairs all at the same time.

    The question then becomes: “who has $5 billion lying around and wants to roll the dice?” The only client who meets this criteria has great depths of pocket and no regard for profit: in other words, the government.

    Einstein defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” At this point, the insanity of sinking further time and money into a theoretically perfect but impractical type of reactor should become clear, rather than investing in other types of advanced reactors, suitable for the capitalist world, such as those that use higher grade LEU so as to minimize refueling outages and decrease waste volume, don’t include expensive integrated fuel cycle facilities (such as electrorefining operations – what utility in their right mind would want to incur the upfront cost and ongoing cost of an on-site reprocessing plant when you can buy enriched uranium at low prices on the free market? Can you say “money pit”?), maximize investment protection by making the time from accident initiation to loss of plant as high as possible – days, if not perpetuity – rather than as low as possible – seconds – in the IFR, and minimize offsite risk by using (relatively) unreactive coolants incapable of phase changes, using fuel that contains fission products, rather than expensive large-scale structures, and incorporating passive decay heat removal.

    However, with continued government socialism for the IFR, dreams of large sodium fast reactors, like dreams of sugarplums, can be used to delay the progress of nuclear energy for decades and distract the attention, waste the time, efforts, and careers of further generations of promising young nuclear engineers, as well as large quantities of taxpayer dollars.

    *Due to the large scale energy releases possible, one has to wonder (tongue in cheek) if the NRC or the NNSA is the appropriate venue for IFR licensing proceedings. After all, the “other side” of the state science complex does offer much higher budgets and greater potential for pure research untainted with the pursuit of profit or mundane applications.

  9. “A poorly located gasoline powered generator qualifies for my description of an “improperly designed or operated hydrocarbon combustion facility.” ”

    Stop digging Rod, you are almost to China.

    “Read carefully ”

    That is an example of not being civil Rod. The problem is not my reading skill but Rod’s logic. Rod writes,

    “compared to the characteristics of the competition. ”

    Does anyone in the world think a Homedepot generator used during an emergency like an ice storm is a competitor of nuclear power?

    “That is the real root cause of the tragedy ”

    Here is the case of the difference between root cause and root blame. If you are trained to perform root cause know the weather can not be a root cause. For example, you have a car accident when it is raining. It could be that you were driving to fast for conditions are too cheap to buy new tires.

    I could make my own electricity just as safely with an ICE as with a nuclear power plant and have.

  10. I am so sick of this expletive edited by moderator that I no longer want to read this blog. If you want to keep putting up with him Rod that is of course your choice, but I do think that it might just be the two of you here after a while.

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