CNN has done a masterful job of seizing the opportunity provided by Robert Stone’s thought-provoking Pandora’s Promise to generate a passionate discussion about the use of nuclear energy — a vitally important topic — at a critical time in American history. The decision makers at that somewhat fading network should be congratulated.
Of course, generating passionate discussion about controversial subjects on which large numbers of people hold strong opinions is one of the best ways for an entertainment network like CNN to entice viewers to pay attention to their shows and articles. Getting viewers to tune in and pay attention is exactly what CNN’s real customers demand. As any well-informed citizen should know, the real customers of large media companies are not the viewers; the real customers, the people responsible for most of the media’s revenues, are the advertisers.
Pandora’s Promise has offered the network the opportunity to generate some heated debate already, with episodes like the Piers Morgan Show discussion between Robert Stone and Robert Kennedy and the Crossfire episode with Michael Shellenberger and Ralph Nader. I hope that the network programmers milk those great properties by repeated showings and perhaps some well promoted YouTube releases.
Here’s another show suggestion for CNN: I volunteer to go head to head on Crossfire with Dr. Ed Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). Here’s the twist that should make the show interesting — I think my position qualifies as being “on the left” while Lyman, who works for an “environmental” organization, is promoting ideas that seem to qualify him as the guy “on the right.”
Just in case there is anyone at CNN paying attention to the Internet to see how people are reacting to its effort to restart the nuclear energy conversation, I’ll provide a sample of what they might hear by creating an imaginary dialog using quoted excerpts from Lyman’s slanted rant about Pandora’s Promise portrayal of the potential embodied in the Integral Fast Reactor (IFR).
Lyman: Like the story of Pandora itself, the tale of the integral fast reactor (IFR) — or at least the version presented in the movie — is more myth than reality. In the final assessment, the concept’s drawbacks greatly outweighed its advantages. The government had sound reasons to stanch the flow of taxpayer dollars to a costly, flawed project that also was undermining U.S. efforts to reduce the risks of nuclear terrorism and proliferation around the world.
Adams: The IFR project was only budgeted for $100 million per year. Not only were the scientists and engineers doing the kind of fundamental research that only the federal government can perform, but the reactor operated as part of that project was a complete power plant that provided about 50% of the electricity used on the 860 square mile Idaho National Lab without producing any air pollution or CO2.
Till and his team were within a couple of years of proving that it was possible to turn uranium 238, which represents 99.3% of natural uranium and 95% of used nuclear fuel, into vast quantities of emission-free heat and electricity. It could have been an undeniable demonstration that the real myth is that using nuclear energy produces an unsolvable waste problem.
Lyman: In the film, scientists who worked on the IFR program unsurprisingly sing its praises. For example, Charles Till, a former program manager, claimed that the reactor “can’t melt down” and would therefore be immune to the type of catastrophes that occurred at Three Mile Island in 1979 and Fukushima in 2011.
“Pandora’s Promise” referenced two successful safety tests conducted in 1986 at a small demonstration fast reactor in Idaho called the Experimental Breeder Reactor-II (EBR-II). But EBR-II operators scripted these tests to ensure the desired outcome, a luxury not available in the real world. Meanwhile, the EBR-II’s predecessor, the EBR-I, had a partial fuel meltdown in 1955, and a similar reactor, Fermi 1 near Detroit, had a partial fuel meltdown in 1966.
Adams: What do you mean, scripted? One of those tests simulated a complete loss of electrical power while the reactor was being operated at its design capacity. That is exactly the initiating event that eventually resulted in the Fukushima core meltdowns.
The experiences at predecessor reactors is irrelevant; the IFR design included features like a large pool of sodium and metal alloy fuel that were specifically incorporated as refinements derived from the lessons learned during the events at the more primitive reactors that you mentioned. For example, unlike Fermi 1, the EBR-II did not have an “internal core catcher” that could get dislodged and clog cooling channels.
Lyman: In the IFR concept, which was never actually realized in practice, reactor-spent fuel would be reprocessed using a technology called pyroprocessing, and the extracted plutonium would be fabricated into new fuel. IFR advocates have long asserted that pyroprocessing is not a proliferation risk because the plutonium it separates is not completely purified.
But a 2008 U.S. Department of Energy review — which confirmed many previous studies — concluded that pyroprocessing and similar technologies would “greatly reduce barriers to theft, misuse or further processing, even without separation of pure plutonium.”
Adams: Talk about scripting to obtain the desired result! I recently visited the Fuel Conditioning Facility in Idaho and talked to the scientists who have been slowly and stealthily working to complete the development that Till and Chang would have completed a long time ago. The material produced by the process works great as a reactor fuel that releases heat predictably and steadily; it is complete crap as a weapons material. It’s a complex mixture of elements and isotopes that are virtually impossible to separate.
Besides, if you have ever been through the security process at a nuclear facility in the United States or Europe, you would realize that the probability of any theft is so darned close to zero that it is not worth worrying about, especially since the countries where the recycling would occur already have nuclear weapons and existing inventories of isotopically pure, weapons-grade material.
Lyman: Other Department of Energy studies showed that pyroprocessing, by generating large quantities of low-level nuclear waste and contaminated uranium, greatly increases the volume of nuclear waste requiring disposal, contradicting “Pandora’s Promise’s” claim it would reduce the amount of waste.
Adams: I think you are confusing pyroprocessing with traditional aqueous processing. Pyroprocessing does not generate large quantities of low-level waste and contaminated materials. The waste streams are vastly reduced in both long term radiotoxicity and volume. Till and Chang were true believers in the “reduce, recycle and reuse” mantra that guides the thoughts and actions of true environmentalists.
Lyman: Moreover, fast reactors have inherent instabilities that make them far more dangerous than light-water reactors under certain accident conditions, conditions that were studiously avoided in the 1986 dog-and-pony show at EBR-II.
Adams: The entire design of the EBR-II was premised on studiously avoiding the “inherent instabilities” that you are referring to. That is the nature of technology development; we conduct small scale experiments like EBR-I, and learn from those experiments. Then we take what we learned and used it to improve the next generation of technology. The EBR-II operated reliably for 30 years; any honest analyst who studies the reports issued during that period will agree that the lessons from early fast reactor experiments were well applied.
Lyman: Perhaps the biggest myth in the film is the notion that all U.S. research on fast reactors was terminated. The Department of Energy has continued to fund research and development on fast reactor technology to the tune of tens of millions to hundreds of millions of dollars a year.
Adams: The funding restoration happened later, after the 1994 midterm election. Clinton and his congressional allies followed through with the state of the union promise to stop funding all advanced nuclear energy research. The National Science Foundation has a report titled Federal R&D Funding by budget function 1994-1996 that shows the annual budget for nuclear materials support, which is the line that was used to pay for research on the IFR, falling from 33 million in 1994 to 24 million in 1995 and to 0 in 1996. That -100% change shows up like a sore thumb in the summary table on page 19.
Lyman: The IFR Fuel Reprocessing Facility in Idaho shown in the film — in reality, a plant called the Fuel Conditioning Facility — has been operating for decades, essentially as a jobs program, to reprocess spent fuel from the now-defunct EBR-II, despite the system’s serious problems. In 2000, the Department of Energy promised that all the fuel would be processed by around 2007. Three years later, it delayed the projected completion date to 2030.
Adams: I’d phrase it differently. Skilled, hard-nosed, career civil servants that recognize the scientific and economic value of the work being done by people in that “jobs program” have managed to overcome the efforts of the fossil fuel and unreliable energy lobbyists that keep trying to kill the program and disperse the talent. They have keep the lights on and the work moving forward, slowly. They have banked the fire and carefully retained enough heat so that the work could move forward expeditiously with adequate funding. A nucleus of skilled, experienced people are still together in Idaho.
We should not let any more time pass before giving them the tools and resources that they need to complete the task of providing us with an inexhaustible source of clean, reliable energy.
The only people who have any reason to fear the proliferation of fast reactor technology and used fuel recycling are the people who sell a few trillion dollars worth of fossil fuel and related products at prices that have been inflated by forced scarcity.
Don’t get me wrong; I like the good things that come to people who have access to vast quantities of energy that they can use as fast as they want. Energy consumed per unit time is the very definition of power; people deserve as much power as scientists and engineers can possibly provide.
Ed, you and I are both old enough to remember the chant that inspired our older siblings — Power to the People! Let’s fight together to deliver the hope that resided at the bottom of Pandora’s box.