I got notified via a Google Alert on “small nuclear power plants” about a post on a blog that I had not previously visited. The post was titled The Environmentalists Nuclear Debate (2) Mark Lynas.
The post provided a link to a very interesting article by Mark Lynas in the New Republic titled How nuclear power can save the planet that I highly recommend reading. (I just checked out the comments thread on that article, it looks like some of the regular contributors to discussions here have already beaten me to the punch. Great to be involved with such an aggressive group of thinkers!)
Since Polly Higgins, the blogger at The Lazy Environmentalist stated that she could not respond to the technical aspects of Lynas’s description of the IFR, she posted the commentary of someone she claimed was an expert in the field – someone named Paul Brown, the author of a book titled Voodoo Economics and the Doomed Nuclear Renaissance. . According to Mr. Brown, the IFR never existed and “fast breeders only worked on small scale dustbin size projects”.
I could not let that go without comment, so I posted the following:
Your chosen “expert” leaves much to be desired with regard to his factual knowledge of the Integral Fast Reactor that operated in the United States until the mid 1990s when it was shut down as part of a full scale attack on all things nuclear.
Here is a link to an abstract for a very detailed operating history of the IFR, which grew out of the Experimental Breeder Reactor II (EBR-II)
Here is a quote from the abstract:
“The most dramatic safety tests, conducted on 3 April, 1986, showed that an LMR with metallic fuel could safely accommodate loss of flow or loss of heat-sink without scram. EBR-II operated as the Integral Fast Reactor (IFR) prototypes demonstrating important innovations in safety, plant design, fuel design and actinide recycle.”
Notice – this was not a computer simulation or a model – it was an operating reactor that was put to the test in front of witnesses and cameras.
The system was not terribly large, but it is pretty strange to call something that generates 62.5 MW of thermal energy a “dustbin”. At a conversion efficiency of 33% that plant could have produced enough electricity to supply a fair sized town of about 20,000 people with all of the electricity that they would need. That same quantity of power can comfortably drive a 10,000 ton ship in ocean commerce.
Here is an interesting bit of dialog from a PBS Frontline interview of one of the scientists involved in the program:
Q: Is the IFR still operating?
A: No. The IFR was canceled in the end of September of 1994, two years ago.
Q: Who made that decision?
A: The decision was made in the early weeks of the Clinton administration. It was tempered somewhat in the Department of Energy in that first year. Congress then acted to keep the program alive in that first year. And then in the second year of the Clinton administration, the decision to really reinforce the earlier decisions was made final, and the Administration put a very considerable effort into assuring successfully that the IFR would be canceled.
It might be remembered by a very small group of people that the Clinton Administration chief of staff, a man named Mack McLarty and the Secretary of Energy, Hazel O’Leary both moved from the natural gas industry into politics.
Here is a quote from a 1997 PBS Frontline show titled “The Fixers” about Mac McLarty:
“NARRATOR: Thomas “Mac” McLarty became President Clinton’s chief of staff. He was a genuine “friend of Bill.” But in his life as a businessman there was a potential problem developing, a possible embarrassment. The problem was in Oklahoma. His company, Arkla, had made a fortune in the oil and gas business. As things would turn out, the gas business in Oklahoma is where were about to find the Lums. But we’re getting ahead of the story. It starts back with the oil and gas boom of the 1980s”
Here is a quote from a glowing biography of Ms. O’Leary at her alma mater – Fisk University:
Mrs. O’Leary’s management skills were garnered through 25 years of experience in energy and environmental policy and large project development. She served as President of the natural gas subsidiary of Northern States Power, a diversified utility holding company in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Prior to that, she held the office of Executive Vice President of Corporate Affairs.
People that sell coal, oil and natural gas have a natural competitive reason for disliking nuclear power – especially nuclear power systems like the IFR that answer most of the remaining questions.