In the above clip from a recent interview on CNN’s Piers Morgan, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. describes how Pandora’s Promise advocates that canceling the Integral Fast Reactor (IFR) project in 1994 was a mistake. RFK Jr., a man from an iconic family that has been a part of the US moneyed Establishment for the better part of a century, disagrees and believes that the decision was correct because it would have led to an energy system and economy that is dependent on plutonium.
Here is a transcript of Bobby’s challenge to Robert Stone’s point of view about the IFR.
Robert F. Kennedy: The kind of reactors that are advocated by this film are breeder reactors which actually create more plutonium — and more weapons-grade plutonium. They’re the kind of reactors that India used to build its atomic bomb, which it called a “peaceful” reactor and a peaceful bomb.
So you get with normal light water reactors, you cannot use that plutonium to create weapons. But with the kind of breeders that are being advocated by this film, you are producing weapons-grade plutonium. And that is why the Clinton Administration killed the program to build these reactors in 1994 in this country.
They’re reactors that actually create more weapons-grade plutonium. And one of the ideas behind the film is that these kind of reactors can actually feed on themselves and create their own fuel. And you can use all of the nuclear waste from the existing power plants and they will eventually reprocess it. But you would have to create thousands of these reactors and operate them for hundreds of years in order for them to devour the nuclear waste that exists.
(Air quotes in original.)
Other than a few minor factual errors, I actually do not disagree with the facts that RFK Jr presented. I’ll respond to each point with a right or wrong and include a slightly different slant on a few where we agree on the basic facts.
He’s wrong: India did not use a sodium-cooled fast breeder reactor as the source of its peaceful explosive test in 1974, it used a heavy water-moderated, thermal neutron reactor fueled by natural uranium. That is a completely different technology.
He’s right: The plutonium produced in commercial light water reactors cannot be used as weapons material. It contains too large a portion of non-fissile, heat-producing plutonium isotopes. Even the most sophisticated weapons designers in the world have never tried to use it for a weapon because they have so many easier ways to get the material they need.
He’s right: The Clinton Administration cancelled the Integral Fast Reactor because they did not want to build reactors designed to produce and use plutonium — or any other useful nuclear materials. Killing the IFR was part of Clinton’s promise — one of the few political promises I can recall that was actually fully implemented — to remove funding for all advanced nuclear energy research. Department of Energy graphs for funds applied to nuclear energy research actually hit zero for a year or two in the mid 1990s.
He’s right: Sodium-cooled fast breeder reactors can feed on themselves and turn material (U-238) that is often considered to be relatively inert in a conventional reactor into fuel.
He’s right: Sodium-cooled fast breeder reactors can run on the material that has been removed from existing reactors and is currently called “waste”. They can be operated in a way that destroys the material if that is the desired outcome.
He’s right: Consuming all of the used nuclear fuel — which is called “waste” by people who lack imagination and are not driven by a desire to use innovation to reduce, reuse and recycle valuable material — will require the construction of thousands of machines that turn the heat generated by the destruction process into electricity.
He’s right: That fleet of thousands of 600 MW (thermal) waste-to-energy plants will need to run for hundreds of years just to get rid of the material that we have already stockpiled as either depleted uranium or as used nuclear fuel.
Here is where I add my own spin — I’d like Bobby to explain why he seems concerned about the prospect of producing hundreds of gigawatts of electricity for hundreds of years by turning waste into clean, affordable, emission-free electricity.
Referring back to the post headline, the only people who have anything to worry about from such a scenario are the people who are very comfortable and well-established within the power structure that arose as a result of controlling petroleum resources and markets for those resources in the existing hydrocarbon based economy.
Allow your mind to wander for a few minutes and think about eventual value of hydrocarbon resources if there is an alternative like waste-consuming fast breeder reactors available. If you are like me and buy large quantities of fuel without selling any, I’d bet that vision brings a smile to your face.
On the other hand, if you a solar energy company executive, a windy, a coal advocate, a petroleum pusher, a natural gas fracker, or a geothermal driller, the vision of facing that kind of competition should make you tremble and wonder how your portfolio — or your job — will survive.