1. Great article Rod, thanks.
    Unfortunately you forgot one very important “detail”, as did your source, in “Stokes said that very little has changed at the site during the past 10 years”
    FFTF has been SABOTAGED by the DoE, by drilling the bottom of the reactor vessel.

    This hole cannot be welded shut in a way acceptable to the NRC, because holes in equipment comprising the primary heat transfer circuit – including the reactor vessel – must be closed using full penetration welds with 100% radiography.

    Since there is no access from the inside of the reactor vessel, the hole cannot be welded shut in a way acceptable to the NRC, therefore there is no possibility of ever re-starting FFTF (at least not in any way that makes financial sense).

    From September 23, 2002:

    “ DOE has now transferred the money and the administration of FFTF from their Nuclear Energy division to their Environmental Management (cleanup) division, has sent in their wrecking managers and publicly announced that they have started the destruction of the plant.”


    Apparently, according to DoE’s report on weapons plutonium disposition, April 2014, it would be cheaper to build a new fast neutron reactor than to re-start FFTF.

    Tables 6-1 and 6-2 from DoE’s report on weapons plutonium disposition, April 2014.

    1. Did you read the linked report? It describes how the hole affects the plant operationally. The fix suggested would provide an acceptable mitigation and cost approximately $1 M.

      1. Rod, as best I can tell, the report never addresses the issue of ASME Code compliance in plugging that hole (In a Class 1 nuclear component).
        Presumably they will need some sort of special dispensation from the NRC for that non-compliance, but there is no mention of it.

          1. What is the pressure at the bottom of the vessel, when full of Sodium? ….is the pressure on the bottom side equal to the inside?
            Also, I seem to recall that ASME Code does apply to radioactive fluids boundaries, even when non-pressurized.
            Is this drilled vessel wall not a boundary?
            Maybe I’m misunderstanding the design of the reactor vessel — or how the hole was drilled? …from the bottom or from the top, through the reactor deck?
            A clarification would be appreciated, thank you.

            1. @Jaro

              Please see explanation in the Siting Study https://curie.ornl.gov/system/files/Siting_Study_for_Hanford_Advanced.pdf

              There is an explanation on pages 56-57 and a good diagram on page 58.

              Location of FFTF hole

              Page 28 has a brief summary:

              Resolution of Hole and Chips in Core Basket – A ¾-inch hole was drilled through a plate inside the reactor vessel below the core support area in order to install a sodium drain pump for removing the sodium from the lower areas of the vessel. The issues are effects of loose chips and alteration of the sodium flow path within the reactor vessel.

    2. There is nothing in Table 6-1 or 6-2 indicating that a new reactor would be cheaper than restarting FFTF. It is difficult to conceive that the restart of the FFTF would be more expensive than a new reactor. As of the Report in 2007, the FFTF was completely in-tact, since then, cover gas has been maintained in all primary piping systems. Replacement of some of the in-vessel fuel handling machinery may be necessary but hardly anywhere near the cost of a new design and facility.

  2. I have been following your blog and Energy from thorium for some years. I am glad that the idea of fully utilising uranium/thorium is finally sinking in.
    Russia is already running commercial fast reactors but others have given it up after some trials.
    Most tragic is the case of UK with stocks full of recovered, reactor grade plutonium. They are stuck with highly wasteful EPR. The abandonment of fast reactors by the US has put a pall of pessimism on fast reactors. Only Russia and to a lesser extent India and China are soldiering on.
    I only hope coolants less dangerous than sodium are put to use. Even the lead used by Russians is better.

    1. @Jagdish Dhali

      As far as I can tell, there have been few, if any, injuries or significant facility damage caused by “dangerous” sodium coolant which has been used in a fair number of experimental and test reactors along with a few commercial reactors.

      That statement cannot be made about the extremely hot, highly pressurized water used as coolant in conventional reactors. As an historical fact, a steam explosion was the root cause of both the SL-1 fatalities and some of the early fatalities that occurred at Chernobyl.

    2. The “lead” used by the Russians (in their Alpha-class submarines and their proposed SVBR-100 small modular reactor) is actually a mixture of lead and bismuth, at the eutectic composition (Lead-Bismuth Eutectic, or LBE). This allows for a lower melting temperature of the coolant (an advantage when refueling because the coolant does not have to be kept at the higher melting temperature of liquid lead to avoid freezing the coolant loop). The disadvantage, of course, is the Po-210 activation product of bismuth when exposed to a neutron field, but this can be mitigated through engineered controls.

    3. I only hope coolants less dangerous than sodium are put to use. Even the lead used by Russians is better.

      Lead is corrosive and requires careful application of protective coatings to prevent the dissolution of other metals in it.  Sodium is so un-reactive that the chalk marks on the inside of the EBR-II were still there when it was dismantled.

      There’s also the seismic issue; lead is many times as dense as sodium.

      1. IIRC from high school chemistry, the significant reactive effect for sodium is with water, which evolves hydrogen and the reaction heat ignites it. Sodium itself is fairly innocuous when in contact with air (light wisps of vapor) or other things (no visible reaction). So I guess the only concerns might be for a sodium-water heat exchanger, but industry has developed ways of reducing that hazard over the years, things like double-walled vessels and the like.

        Our industrial hygiene department would have a heart attack over the use of large quantities of lead. They are absolutely paranoid about RCRA-8 metals.

      2. Sodium un-reactive? as long as there is no water or moisture in the vecinity…

        I think you are mixing-up corrosion with reactivity. Lead is really here the non-reactive one. The corrosiveness of lead is neutralized with the right chemistry control through the addition oxigen, which builds a protective oxid layer, nothing new.

        However, the (explosive) reactivity of sodium with water requires of an intermediate heat exchanger in order that the transfer of heat from sodium to steam is done through a less reactive medium, so as to avoid that a break of the steam generator will spill steam into the sodium if both were directly coupled.

        The so low density of sodium is less of an advantage, as it has been already identified that the avoidance of leaks and later risk of fires is a critical issue in SFR. On the other side, sodium becomes also activated… there’s nothing ideal.

        1. @Francis

          Sodium is not reactive with metal. The requirements for keeping it separated from water and air are as well known and as easy to implement as keeping lead from corroding piping. Both require attention to detail and compliance with procedures and specifications.

          As you say, nothing is perfect. I wish that nuclear professionals would stop sniping at each other and recognize that there are a wide variety of acceptable paths forward. Some will be less expensive than others while some will provide better capabilities in certain applications. There might be room for success with a variety of approaches or one might end of winning all of the markets. We don’t know, but we should know one thing for certain – fission appears likely to beat combustion in a number of markets for a number of reasons.

          Quit bickering and fighting over scraps of government funding – develop products that can meet enough customer needs at a competitive price so that we succeed in the market and reduce our dependence on politics.

        2. Good point about the sodium activation. 24Na has a 15 hr. half-life, which is short, but as we all know that makes for more activity. One of the decay gammas is 2.7 MeV, which makes shielding difficult (difficult, not impossible).

          The pool-type sodium reactor like EBR-2 was pretty sweet because of the low pressure operation on the primary side. You’re going to have pressurization on the intermediate and secondary side so I guess the best thing is to physically separate the sodium inventory from the feedwater as much as possible, maybe in separate buildings as well as using the standard things the chemical industry does to keep the bad actors apart (e.g., double-walled pipes and vessels).

          1. The sodium reactors use a guard vessel around the reactor vessel and an intermediate loop to remove the sodium to water heat exchangers from the primary coolant loop and move those heat exchangers outside of the containment building. Any leak from the steam cycle side to the sodium coolant would be outside of containment and in a component which is not part of the reactor coolant loop.

            The lead or lead-bismuth systems eliminate the need for the intermediate loop but introduce other engineering challenges. Both systems work well and have been used in large scale test reactors and propulsion systems since the 1960’s.

            The common advantage is that these liquid metal and molten salt systems operate at higher temperatures and, essentially, ambient pressure in the primary circuit. The higher temps provide improved efficiency. The non-pressurized primary circuit are not subject to the catastrophic depressurization events that water reactors are subject to and have incorporated a number of engineered safety features to mitigate. Since these systems are not applicable to non-pressurized systems, the metal and salt coolant plants are simpler to build and operate and therefore should be less costly

  3. There is significant misinformation regarding the “hole” as referenced by Mr Franta. There is no “hole” in the reactor vessel, the “hole” was drilled in a non-pressure boundary area internal to the reactor to allow for sodium draining. The hole is of no consequence to the operations of the reactor and can be repaired.

  4. The reality is that while FFTF could provide a fast flux testing capability, it wouldn’t give INL a new reactor.

    1. @Anonymous

      I’m aware of the interests involved and also aware of their short-sighted nature.

      While INL would not get any funds for beginning the process of designing and building a new testing reactor project that would probably never result in a reactor anyway, assisting with the reactivation and operation of FFTF for its designed purpose of testing fuels and materials for fast reactors might result in INL being the host for several new demonstration or FOAK commercial fast reactors.

      I hope that the boosters and the lab people take a longer view than they often have over the past half a century. It’s high time that they recognize that internecine budget battles between labs are detrimental to the overall mission of enabling nuclear energy to thrive in the U.S. and around the world.

  5. Only a moron would believe that authorizing DOE to build a new fast test reactor would be less expensive or faster than restarting FFTF. A new reactor would most likely require 3-4 times more time and money.
    A real worry is that a new reactor concept would eat up more money than the FFTF restart and never be finished.

  6. @Rod,

    “No domestic test facility can provide enough fast neutrons to do anything more than slowly irradiate a small quantity of tiny samples.”

    It all depends what you really mean by slowly, small or tiny, but you’re over mis underestimating the capability of existing facilities. HFIR has significant fast flux available as do several other research reactors. It may not be “prototypical,” but it’ll do, and be safer.

    “As an historical fact, a steam explosion was the root cause of both the SL-1 fatalities and some of the early fatalities that occurred at Chernobyl.”

    Before the steam explosion was loss of reactivity control. Fast reactor control is more sensitive, being closer to prompt critical…

    1. @Pu239

      You are correct. My adjectives deserve to be quantified.

      Compared to HFIR, FFTF maximum flux is 4.6 times greater. (1 x 10^15 versus 4.6 x 10^15) It has almost 2.4 times as many in core irradiation locations (37 vs 91) It has 2.6 times as many reflector irradiation locations (42 versus 108). FFTF has a core height of 91 cm versus HFIR’s 51 cm.

      Here is what the team assessing the mission and requirements for a new test reactor wrote about HFIR’s capabilities:

      As can be seen from Table 1, the highest value of fast flux among all domestic irradiation reactors is provided by HFIR. This facility’s maximum fast flux (for neutron energies exceeding 0.1 MeV) is approximately 1×1015 n/cm2/s.

      However, the highest fast flux in an experimental location of useful volume is about half this value and corresponds to a damage rate of approximately 6 dpa (displacements per atom) per year of
      irradiation. This rate is too low for attaining damage doses exceeding 100 dpa (typically desired damage resistance value for advanced structural materials) in a reasonable irradiation time.


      As noted before, that team dismissed FFTF as being unavailable without really doing much research on its current state of being.

      HFIR has missions that currently keep it occupied. Should those missions be displaced for the 16 years or more that it will take to complete a single round of irradiation for a small sample of material?

      Your statement about fast reactor control isn’t applicable to specific designs. Like the EBR-II, FFTF not only had designed passive safety, it ran a series of actual, physical tests to prove that the computer computations were accurate.

  7. If restarted, would it be possible to retrofit the facility to provide a small amount of power generation? When they closed the facility, an argument was made about using it to produce materials for medical radiation treatment. Apparently, that need still exists. Seems like it would give nuclear some good PR, to be able to save Cancer patients.

    1. @Eino

      The Siting Study for Hanford Advanced Fuels Test & Research Center conducted for GNEP in 2007 offers several optional paths and capabilities that can be added to the existing facility. Those included power generation and isotope production.

      The document does a good job of explaining the costs and tradeoffs that come with expecting multiple uses from the same facility. In some cases, the benefits would be well worth the costs, but in others, the benefits are more “political” while the costs are quite high for the resulting product compared to other alternatives.

  8. @Rod,

    Since FFTF was 400 MW and HFIR is down-rated from 100 to 85 MW, it shouldn’t surprise anyone to hear there is a 4.7+/- factor difference in flux and core volume. Call me skeptical about the additional factor of 2 from the esteemed and biased committee, but even so, that’s only a factor of 10. You can do useful irradiation at a 1, 5 or 10 MW university research reactor, today or next month, if you really want. The delay time to restart or build-new will eat more time than that factor of 10. No matter what, you won’t know the full story until you operate the real plants, and then the unexpected happens. So, this is not about getting the job done. This is, as you said, about funding favorite projects.

    Yes, carefully planned tests of properly functioning equipment go well. In the real world of Murphy, we have imperfect operation, down-rates of 15% at HFIR, steam explosions at Chernobyl and SL1. And whatever exploded at Fukushima.

    The statement about fast reactor control is physics. No matter how much you say “passive” or “clean, safe and affordable,” you cannot cheat physics. She will bite you. The real question is why should we the taxpayers have ANY more money stolen from us to pay for these projects, and studies of projects, to support this “more expensive but affordable” power, and be forced to accept the risks of more severe accidents, and proliferation?

    1. @Pu-239

      Your commentary is beginning to approach the level of bias in which I traditionally ask contributors to provide more information about their qualifications and interests. Atomic Insights has established a tradition of accepting pseudonyms because many highly knowledgable commenters have reasons for not advertising their real names.

      However, we also have an audience that deserves to know enough about the commenters so that they can judge if they are simply blowing smoke, making stuff up, faithfully copying talking points or have legitimate training and education that provides them a solid basis for having an opinion that differs widely from that of most nuclear energy professionals.

      With regard to your specific comment above, you have no idea what you are talking about.

      “Useful irradiations” may be obtainable in a university reactor, but the level of irradiation effect done on fuels and materials isn’t sufficient to validate licensing level computer code and thus is insufficient for real projects that are honestly aiming to qualify fuel and material to the satisfaction of the regulator.

      Even with some access to the Advanced Test Reactor, the DOE’s fuel and material qualification program for high temperature gas reactors has been underway since about 2005 and will not be complete before 2021. A huge portion of that time has been driven by the need for adequate irradiation. A factor of 5-10 improvement in the rate of irradiation is NOTHING to sneeze at – it could turn a 20 year qualification program into a 2-4 year program.

      The “esteemed and biased” committees that you so blithely dismiss were merely reporting design details from various reactors in the tables I was quoting.

      Taxpayers have had money “stolen” from then for many purposes with far less potential for a return on the investment. For example, we’ve been spending about $5 billion per year since 2009 in “R&D” and market development funds to pay 30% of the cost of installing wind and solar energy systems that are mature enough to be in mass production with few changes in technology.

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