Good reasons not to waste nuclear ‘waste’

For decades we have all been told that nuclear waste is an unsolved ‘problem’ which makes future nuclear power development unethical because it will add to a toxic legacy left to poison our descendants thousands of generations into the future. The Yucca mountain controversy in the US and other debates about geological disposal seemingly illustrate the technical impossibility of guaranteeing to isolate a radioactive waste stockpile from the biosphere up to a million years into the future. But there is an easy way to solve this problem, and it doesn’t involve digging deeper holes – politically or physically. It involves remembering the principal ‘R’ word of the environmental movement: recycling.

In actual fact, the worst thing possible we could do with nuclear waste would be to throw it away. Worldwide stockpiles of ‘waste’ from thermal light-water reactors (which comprise the vast majority of civil nuclear reactors) already include enough fissile (or fertile) elements – plutonium, other actinides like americium and neptunium, and uranium (both U-235 and U-238) – to run the world on clean energy for centuries without having to go out and mine another gram of uranium ore anywhere. That so few people appreciate this fact suggests that igorance about all things nuclear is more profound than many of us would like to think, and especially so within the environmental movement.

The UK government, for example, recently carried out a consultation on what should be done with Britain’s plutonium stockpile, which currently totals more than 100 tonnes. The mooted options include continued surface storage, ‘spiking’ it to make it useless to terrorists or other bomb-builders before deep disposal, or recycling it with uranium into ‘mixed oxide’ fuel to be burned in conventional reactors. None of these options make much sense. Instead, the most sensible – and sustainable – option by far is the one ruled out early on in the consultation document, which is to put the plutonium, together with fissile elements from existing waste stockpiles, into a new generation of ‘fast’ reactors and use them to generate zero-carbon electricity.

Few people realise just how inefficient and wasteful the current generation of nuclear reactors actually are, and why they generate relatively large volumes of long-lived waste. This is because only a tiny amount (less than one percent) of the energy in the uranium is burned up in the reactor to generate heat and electricity – the rest is wasted (or worse than wasted, as it then adds to an expensive legacy which is difficult to handle and dispose of). Yet as Tom Blees recounts in his book Prescription for the Planet (especially Chapter 4, which is available free here), fast reactors can utilise 95% or more of the fissile energy in their fuel. Blees proposes a design called the ‘Integral Fast Reactor’ (IFR), originally developed at the Argonne National Laboratory in the United States, and very successful until the programme was cancelled in 1994 by President Clinton to appease anti-nuclear campaigners.

Waste-wise, IFRs or other fast reactors can generate prodigious amounts of clean energy by vastly reducing the current waste stockpile, but they cannot eliminate it altogether. Some fission products remain at the end of the process, and will need to be disposed of in a geological repository – probably after having been stabilised by vitrification (turned into glass). However, it is a misnomer to assume that these need to be isolated from the biosphere for thousands or even millions of years – in fact, after only a few hundred years, the radioactivity levels in the leftover waste will have declined back to those of the original naturally-occurring uranium ore, and they will become functionally safe much sooner. This is not a significant environmental problem, and indeed is much less of a challenge than the waste produced by other industries like electronics or metal smelting, which has no half-life and therefore remains toxic forever.

Fast reactors like the IFR can also be designed with passive safety features. All nuclear accidents so far – from Three Mile Island to Chernobyl to Fukushima – have involved loss of coolant crises, where solid fuel melts down (in the cases of TMI and Japan) or overheats and explodes in the case of Chernobyl. This cannot happen in the IFR design as the coolant would be molten sodium circulating at atmospheric pressure rather than water at very high pressure, and therefore steam explosions due to overheating or containment failures are not a problem. Moreover, fast reactors behave differently from light-water reactors – the hotter they get, the less efficient the fission reaction becomes, and if the overheating continues fission is effectively shut down. (Note that Fukushima was already shut down when its loss of coolant happened – at issue was the heat produced by residual reactive decay in the fuel assemblies.)

So why, if they are so great, are we not using fast reactors already? Partly this is for political reasons, because it has long been thought that ‘breeding’ plutonium adds to proliferation concerns. Actually this is largely a misunderstanding, for all reactors produce plutonium – the issue is the need to design the fuel cycle so that bomb-grade materials are never separated, but fed back into fast reactors whilst still highly radioactive and unusable to terrorists or militaries alike. Fast reactors allow us to destroy plutonium stockpiles, and thereby reduce the dangers of proliferation. The big reason why fast reactors have stayed at the experimental stage (although 500 reactor-years of experience have now been clocked up in different prototypes around the world) is that uranium fuel is simply too cheap to be worth the additional cost of using efficiently or recyling. Only governments can solve this problem, by insisting that recycling be made an integral part of new fourth-generation reactor designs (like the IFR) in order to avoid the need for environmentally-damaging and carbon-intensive uranium mining and processing.

As I mentioned earlier, closing the fuel cycle means that we can look forward to hundreds of years of clean nuclear power without the need to mine anymore uranium. This puts paid to the ‘peak uranium’ argument which is a new favourite for anti-nuclear campaigners – we are certainly not about to run out of fissile elements any time soon. Nor do we need to move straight to thorium, which seems to have become the nuclear fuel of choice for a new crowd of determined enthusiasts (Friends of the Earth supports thorium research, but still opposes uranium, in a bizarre sort of elemental political correctness) largely because it is more abundant naturally than uranium. Thorium would still need some new mining and extraction.

To my mind, the way forward is simple: we need to utilise existing fissile materials in waste stockpiles, together with weapons-grade decommissioned uranium and plutonium, added to ‘depleted uranium’ (U-238) in a new generation of IFR-type reactors. The chance of getting anything built in the near term in the UK or the US is tiny, however – but China has just started up a small-scale fast reactor near Beijing, and Russia may be the first country to build an IFR. Unfortunately, the legacy of decades of anti-nuclear activism in the West means that we will likely fall behind in this new clean-energy race too.

As Tom Blees puts it in his book:

Thus we have a prodigious supply of free fuel that is actually even better than free, for it is material that we are quite desperate to get rid of. Uranium, plutonium, and other actinides, both weapons-grade and otherwise, will go into the IFR plants. Only non-actinides with short half-lives will ever come out. We will eliminate the problems of both radioactive longevity and the potential for nuclear proliferation.

I cannot imagine a more environmentally responsible proposal for tackling both climate change and nuclear waste/proliferation at the same time. Can you?

32 comments

  1. fr33cycler says:

    You skate over how safe the molten sodium coolant is pretty neatly.

    It get the lack of pressure means it will not explode due to pressure (like steam/water can) but I seem to remember it doing some quite spectular stuff in chemistry lessons.

    • Mark Lynas says:

      Yes, of course. But water and sodium don’t meet, for that reason, and the heat exchange loop runs through a building with an argon atmosphere just to be on the safe side. Plus it all happens well away from the reactor. Have a look at Tom Blees’ reactor design in the book, and his discussion of this very point.

    • quokka says:

      In the GE-HITACHI PRISM design, the reactor pressure vessel is surrounded by Argon gas inside the containment.

  2. M Jones says:

    It’s worth noting China announced a major initiative to commence development of molten salt reactors intended to utilize a closed fuel cycle utilizing thorium, earlier this year. It’s worth noting, as well, that the Chinese announcement of intent to develop this technology anticipates development of small modular reactors for export, on a commercial scale. Serious initiatives to build liquid fluoride thorium reactors are underway in the US (where military exemption from NRC oversight may provide an expedited path to first prototypes) and South Africa. Proponents of that alternative are not necessarily opposed to IFR, both technologies deliver strong suite of similar virtues with similar, modest and manageable risk. In regard to spent fuel processing, liquid fueled reactors (such as liquid fluoride thorium reactors aka LFTR) are at some advantage over reactor designs that rely on solid fuel assemblies, but we’ll have to wait and see which development team gets the first one working to assess timelines for broad deployment.

    While I’d concur there is no need to “move straight to thorium” if what you mean by that is to abandon IFR, in the long run, molten salt reactors using a closed thorium / uranium fuel cycle offer prospects for broader and hence more egalitarian global delivery of clean, inexpensive energy v IFR, which seem to work best in advanced countries where existing stockpiles of spent fuel now exist. Any modern reactor will require rigorous, conscientious, safe operation by highly qualified staff, but here again, passive safety of LFTR on paper at least appear to be just a bit safer, all things considered, versus IFR.

    One other note, thorium extraction occurs as an incidental component of rare earth extraction (in other words, thorium occurs alongside many if not most rare earth operations worldwide) — in some countries, thorium separated from rare earths must be stockpiled for disposal as hazardous waste. So in that sense, thorium is “better than free” in the words of Mr. Blees. I’d also suggest the small amounts of thorium required as annual support for a proposed 1GWe reactor (on the order of 100-200Kg) in conjunction with the low cost, wide geologic availability, and minimal requirement for processing, make the argument that mining thorium is meaningful, as deterrent to pursuing this technology, is misdirected as a matter of scale. So thorium offers extraordinary dense energy content, easily transportable (in contrast to spent nuclear fuel).

    Wholeheartedly agree with the main point and conclusion, I’m cheering for both platforms (IFR and LFTR) but would consider myself “undetermined” in my support for the latter, unless I spoke up a bit, here. Cheers, Mark.

    • M Jones says:

      First, with apologies, a friend has reminded me the annual amount of thorium required to support each GWe in a liquid fluoride thorium reactor is roughly one ton (not 100-200Kg)

      Next, may I offer a link to very clear discussion embracing the virtues of Gen III reactors, alongside Gen IV, posted here: http://tinyurl.com/3lhvwhw

      I was reminded of the link by Jani’s comments, particularly “if climate change mitigation is our primary goal”

      And last but not least, when are you going to respond to Bryony Worthington’s tweet regarding the debate on thorium v uranium fueled IFR, are you waiting for Tom Blees to confirm availability as your second? Kirk Sorenson responded quite promptly indicating his willingness to be second to Lady Worthington.

      Dude?

  3. Jani says:

    While I agree with your point about the usefulnes of burning spent fuel into energy, I think one should keep an open mind as to what particular reactor type is most useful. It might very well be that we will need a range of different types of reactors. As for IFR and thorium…my understanding is that fast reactors require a larger fissile load to get started than the thermal ones operating with the thorium cycle. So for a given amount of fissile material (from the nukes preferably) we might be able to start more molten salt thorium reactors than IFR:s. This might be very important if climate change mitigation is our primary goal. Fast breeders have potentially higher breeding ratio so after starting the first round their fleet can be, in principle, expanded faster, but it remains to be seen what breeding ratio the actual reactors would have. Designing for more safety, might mean sacrifices in the breeding ratio.

    Also it should be kept in mind, that cost is important. Molten salt based thermal reactors might very well be much cheaper. They also run at atmospheric pressure and can be designed to be so safe that one can walk away from them and do this without all that sodium. Simpler design, might mean lower costs and the possibility of factory production. We should not be too restrictive in our choices.

    Your point about the impacts of mining is quite irrelevant. Even the uranium mining we have today causes very little damage compared to other mining operations people do all the time and current uranium mining volumes are dramatically too high even if all the worlds energy consumption would be produced with fast reactors. Production just from the Olympic dam mine would be about enough for the entire planet even without all that spent fuel. In addition (as far as I understand) Olympic dam mine is primarily a copper mine, so most of the damage would have been caused in any case. The same applies for thorium. It can be mined as a by product of rare earth mining which is needed for all those wind turbines for example. So, no harm worth mentioning is done even if the world decides to go for thorium cycle.

  4. Lars Jorgensen says:

    The article references thorium and quickly dismisses it. Rare earth operations (needed for wind mills, hybrid cars, cell phones, and lots of other applications) produce thorium as a byproduct that is a challenge to dispose of. Thorium (and specifically Liquid Fluoride Molten Salt) reactors will use this byproduct instead of mining new ore and in the process help with the rare earth thorium disposal problem so mining is not an issue. The more abundant supply of thorium versus uranium is also not a discriminating factor between IFR and LFTR since both supplies are far more abundant than we could ever use.

    The two technologies represent different approaches to provide long term energy. I am in the LFTR camp and could present my reasons why.

    The problem of providing energy is critically important. Far more important than most people realize. Over the next century approximately 10 billion people will be consuming energy more like Europe than Africa. This represents a monumental challenge – much harder than solving the UK or USA energy challenge. King coal is winning this race today (new energy production worldwide by coal was 10x that by renewables in 2010). If we do not come up with a lower cost solution than coal my grandchildren will live in a world with10x the coal power plants that I do. Note that the solution MUST cost less than coal or China/India/SouthAmerica/Africa will choose coal. This is an all hands on deck challenge for our society.

    Since there are risks (especially in the cost area) with both IFR and LFTR we should fund and develop both of them with some haste. Every week delay another several coal plants will be built that will last for 80 years.

  5. Max says:

    A fast reactor does not have to use sodium as a coolant. There are working reactors which use lead or lead-bismuth eutectic instead.
    Sodium fires have been an issue at several sodium-cooled fast reactors before, such as the Phenix in France or Monju in Japan. Also, sodium becomes intensely radioactive when activated by neutrons, which means that the reactor needs an intermediate sodium coolant loop to transfer heat to the steam generators. As far as I recall all sodium fires in prototype reactors occurred due to pipe leaks on the secondary loop, so they weren’t an immediate threat to the reactor, but they still caused major disruptions in power plant operation, forcing the reactor to shut down for safety reasons.

    I’m not a nuclear engineer, but I intuitively believe that the future belongs to lead-cooled systems, because they appear to be safer and more economical, since they do not require an intermediate coolant loop. Sodium-cooled designs have the advantage that they are a more mature technology, at least in the West. Lead-cooled fast reactors were more of a Soviet thing.

    A comparison of both systems can be found here:

    http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0029549306003347

    There is a European initiative to develop lead-cooled fast reactors:

    http://www.elsy-lead.com/Default.aspx

    As for the overall concept of the IFR as an integrated power reactor – fuel reprocessing facility, that should work with lead-cooled fast reactors as well, shouldn’t it?

    • Tom Blees says:

      Max,

      Lead and lead-bismuth systems aren’t news. There are multiple reasons why so many different countries are going with sodium. Your assertion that radioactivity in sodium is a problem is incorrect. The sodium that does become radioactive has a very short half-life so it’s absolutely not a problem. The reason you use an intermediate sodium loop to transfer the heat is so that you can have a non-radioactive sodium system where the water/steam is just in case there’s a leak either way. That way you can isolate the reactor vessel in a separate structure from the steam generator, a logical safety precaution. Sodium is still used in the loop not least because it’s a very efficient heat exchange medium. It wouldn’t surprise me, though, to see supercritical CO2 systems come into play instead. That’s right on the horizon.

      Phenix ran for about thirty years with no major sodium problems as far as I know. Monju’s sodium leak was non-radioactive and wouldn’t have caused such a fuss if not for the fact that they tried to cover up the incident and were exposed. They had gone in and just cleaned up the mess and thought they could get away with it. Bear in mind that sodium burns considerably cooler in air than other fuels like hydrocarbons, and it smokes a lot so leaks are readily apparent and can be dealt with. Usually you wouldn’t refer to such incidents as “major disruptions”. Even the old BN-350 in the USSR back in the early 70s that had lousy heat exchangers and frequent leaks and sodium/water interactions (one rather spectacular) had only very short downtimes while they cleaned up the messes, welded up the holes, and went back online.

      Lead has its own suite of problems, including corrosion (absolutely not an issue with sodium). Intuitive belief that lead is better is hardly an argument in its favor.

    • Max says:

      I’m impartial in this debate. I don’t care whether its lead or sodium coolant, as long as the reactor is safe and efficient.

  6. Two points.

    One: You might want to note that a new Euratom Directive on this question has just been adopted:

    http://ec.europa.eu/energy/nuclear/waste_management/waste_management_en.htm

    Two: If opponents of nuclear power get their way, the waste management problem will become much easier, since all life on Earth will be wiped out by Venus syndrome in a couple of centuries anyway. That of course means that there is no need anymore to secure the waste for millions of years. Just bury it in some random depleted mine and have a fence around it to keep children out. That should do just fine until everybody is dead.

    • David Bailey says:

      Except for one interesting detail. The air pressure at the surface of Venus, is about 92 atmospheres – and the temperature in any atmosphere rises as you descend. The temperature of Venus’ atmosphere at 1 atmosphere was apparently measured, and found to be only about 50C higher than that on Earth.

      Venus’ atmosphere is mainly CO2, so this worst case scenarion doesn’t sound so bad when you think that current CO2 concentration here is about 380 ppm, and Venus is considerably closer to the sun!

    • Please refer to the section on Venus syndrome in Hansen’s “Storms of my grandchildren” for details about the concept.

  7. quokka says:

    It should be added that there exists a commercial design for an IFR called the PRISM by GE-Hitachi. GE have been trying to market the PRISM with integrated with pyroprocessing recycling facility under the name ARC (Advanced Recycling Center).

    It would be possible to commence construction of a full scale demonstration plant almost immediately if there was the will to do it. Unfortunately, molten salt reactors are much further back in the R&D timeline.

    http://local.ans.org/virginia/meetings/2007/2007RIC.GE.NRC.PRISM.pdf

  8. Max says:

    Uranium is still cheap enough that the transition from Light Water Reactors with a once-through fuel cycle to fast breeders doesn’t make economic sense. If it is to happen now irrespective of that, we need government intervention.

    • quokka says:

      That’s probably a good summary of where things are at the moment. The MIT 2010 Future of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle study concluded that there is likely enough uranium to support a ten fold increase in nuclear power with only a factor of two increase in fuel cost over 60 years using current light water reactor technology.

      http://web.mit.edu/mitei/docs/spotlights/nuclear-fuel-cycle.pdf

      It is worth reflecting that increasing nuclear power to four times the current worldwide capacity would be more than sufficient to replace all coal generation and a factor of six would just about replace all fossil fuel generation.

      My personal opinion is that it would be highly desirable to progress advanced fuel cycles ASAP, but that should not obscure the reality that once-through light water reactors have an important and most likely critically important role in reducing emissions now and for several decades ahead.

    • Max says:

      Indeed, it is critical to displace coal power generation as soon as possible. 3rd generation nuclear could replace coal within a couple of decades in all countries belonging to the “civil nuclear club” (which is responsible for around 80%-90% of the world’s CO2 emissions), so it wouldn’t even need to be extended to more countries, alleviating proliferation concerns (although it is desirable that stable non-nuclear countries adopt the technology as well). With a France-style buildup in most nuclear club countries, a 4x overall increase in generating capacity doesn’t seem like an outlandish proposition.
      Renewable energy sources could pick up the slack, displacing oil and gas.

    • Tom Blees says:

      Max,

      While uranium is cheap and plentiful enough for quite a while, there is the need to address the public’s concern about long-lived waste that would be solved by demonstrating the closed fuel cycle (fast reactors and pyroprocessing). Once that was done, we would likely see far more support for building more LWRs (of the passive safety type like ESBWRs and AP1000) than we see today when the spectre of the “million-year waste problem” hovers over the whole nuclear debate.

      Your assertion that transitioning to IFRs doesn’t make economic sense is completely unfounded. You have no clue how much it’ll cost to mass-produce PRISM reactors.

    • Max says:

      I agree with all of your points. I have no idea how much it would cost to build IFR facilities. But as the IFR concept relies on technologies (fast breeders and metal fuel / pyroprocessing) which have not yet seen large scale commercial application, I suppose they would, initially at least, cost more than a Gen II/III LWR design of equivalent capacity.

      This is exemplified by the situation as it is now: I know GE-Hitachi markets the PRISM, but it seems to be a very low priority for them compared to their light-water reactors.

      If the transition to fast reactors is to occur soon, we need the government to shove the industry in the right direction. I also think its better to address the nuclear waste issue sooner rather than later, but the free market isn’t going to do it, at least not right now since Uranium is still plentiful and cheap and the LWR with its once-through fuel cycle is a proven technology with decades of construction and operating experience behind it.

    • Tom Blees says:

      Max, I take your point about the lack of impetus on the part of normal market forces to push the transition to fast reactors. I was taking issue with your statement that it wouldn’t make economic sense to mean that fast reactors/IFRs would be too expensive to build. In fact, there are numerous features they embody that would lead one to believe that they will indeed be at least as cheap and likely cheaper to build than LWRs.

      As with any big leap in technology, the first ones will be more expensive, and I seriously doubt that the US government will push for one to be built domestically. Russia, however, is committed to taking that step, and to doing so in concert with other countries including the USA. The UK has a tangible incentive to participate: 112 tons of plutonium in storage. The UK government is at a deciding point of how to handle that, so one way or the other government is going to tip the balance and “pick a winner.” The question is whether it will spend a fraction of the money for what promises to be a superlative technology or a bundle of money for a half measure that’s completely unnecessary. After all, why should the UK pay AREVA up to ten billion pounds to build a MOX plant when Sellafield is already capable of fabricating MOX fuel and a great variety of fuel types? Sure, it’s had its share of technical problems, but now AREVA itself is sorting that out. What sense is there in having them build an entire new MOX plant for many times the billion pounds plus that’s already been spent on Sellafield? If you want MOX (do you really?) just make it there. But since even when operating as intended it will produce fuel that’s more expensive than any utility wants to buy, why go all in on an inferior technology?

    • M Jones says:

      Hello, Tom,

      Any interest in participating in a debate on the relative merits of molten salt reactors utilizing uranium / thorium closed cycle v plutonium burning closed cycle implemented in IFRs?

      This idea was first proposed in twitter exchange between Mark Lynas, Bryony Worthington, and Damian Carrington of the Guardian, on July 22.

      It’s apparent Mr. Lynas is firmly persuaded IFR deserves the lead, while Lady Worthington favors exploring the potential of using thorium in a molten salt reactor.

      The initial message declared a “battle of the fissile elements” (partly right, of course, thorium in its natural state being fertile, only)

      Motion by Lady Worthington, on July 22, for formal debate, two to each side, “name your second!” said Mr. Lynas, Lady Worthington asked for Kirk Sorenson, Mr. Lynas asked for you.

      While this exchange was perhaps mostly just spontaneous banter, I believe there would be quite strong interest in the exchange, and it seems the Guardian would be rightly considered agreeable to all as a natural and capable host.

      Mr. Sorenson is traveling to the UK in September, should the opportunity arise to assemble in person. His initial response to the possibility discussed here, verbatim, “I like it! I’m game!”

      And you?

    • Tom Blees says:

      M. Jones,

      Sorry, I don’t follow anybody on Twitter and haven’t been here in a few days so I didn’t follow the bit about a debate about thorium v. IFR till now.

      I fail to see what possible benefit there would be in engaging in such a debate for any nuclear proponent. When governments and large international environmental organizations are spreading anti-nuclear hysteria with renewed vigor, a debate over whose flavor of nuclear power is best would only create the impression that even nuclear advocates can’t figure out what they want to do.

      There’s an old cliché line from Western films: “This town ain’t big enough for the both of us.” Alas, that seems to have been the attitude that many thorium enthusiasts—Kirk included—have adopted in relation to IFRs, even after I purposely provided an early opportunity for Kirk to get good public exposure back when virtually nobody was talking about thorium (Kirk, you know what I’m referring to here).

      I have repeatedly told Kirk and his fellow LFTR supporters that I wish them all the best in getting their favorite technology the R&D money they’ll need, and that if LFTRs prove cheaper and better than IFRs and we start building and deploying them globally I’ll be happy as a clam. But the two systems aren’t anywhere near equivalent in terms of their development. LFTRs are simply not far enough along on the R&D curve yet, whereas we could start building a commercial IFR tomorrow. Sodium-cooled fast reactors have hundreds of reactor-years of experience. Russia, France and the USA have all run individual reactors of this type for over 30 years (BN-600, still running; Phenix, recently shut down; EBR-II).

      I’m delighted for Kirk and his supporters that China has decided to do LFTR R&D and I look forward to their findings. Meanwhile, many governments have already decided to build metal-fueled fast reactors and are at various stages of doing so, including Russia, China, India and South Korea. Russia has been crystal clear in stating their intention to not only work with the USA in this endeavor but to invite these other nations (and Japan) to join in the effort. As you know from the articles referenced by Mark in this article, I’m hoping the UK will join in this project.

      People write to me frequently to encourage me to engage in debates with nuclear opponents both amateur and professional. I have done so when such an opportunity presents the probability of influencing policymakers, but not just for a public popularity contest. Some people might enjoy a nuclear version of American Idol. But the development of advanced nuclear power systems isn’t a populist issue, it’s a question that’s going to be answered at a national government level, and the aforementioned governments are already pretty far along on the IFR path (or something close to it).

      I’m not going to encourage the perception of developmental equivalency of the IFR and LFTR by engaging in a debate about them when I have already seen the latter’s proponents use scare tactics and exaggeration to try to undermine the IFR. If the public wants to examine the pros and cons of either system, there is ample opportunity for them to do so. The debate format is a poorly-equipped vehicle for presenting technical subjects, a point I’ve seen demonstrated time and again by pro/anti nuclear debaters. And frankly I detest the “Okay, let’s vote to see who won” absurdity when the point should be educating the audience, not vying in a popularity contest.

      In the not-too-distant future the facts on the ground will prove that new nuclear power systems (like the AP1000 now being built in China) can be a safe and economical power source for the future. Wasting time debating those issues with the likes of Amory Lovins, Greenpeace and others is pointless. On another level, IFRs will soon be demonstrated at commercial scale (Russia is, in fact, converting their already-running BN-600 to burn metal fuel, the hallmark of the IFR concept). LFTRs probably will be eventually, hopefully sooner rather than later. I see no more reason to engage in a pissing match about the latter than to engage with the likes of Lovins. On the contrary, infighting amongst pro-nuclear advocates can be detrimental to all concerned.

      If Bryony Worthington would want to discuss IFR and LFTR technology with me when I’m in London I would be more than happy to meet with her. She can contact me via Mark or through my web site.

  9. Barry Woods says:

    Am I bad for finding it amusing for considering the irony that thorium is a waste material from the mining for all the rare earth metals in windturbines, electric cars and no doubt the eco minded choice of technology ipads and iphones

  10. Timothy (likes zebras) says:

    “..remembering the principal ‘R’ word of the environmental movement: recycling.”

    I thought that recycling was the last of three ‘R’ words, namely:
    “Reduce, re-use, recycle.”

    Reducing the amount of waste, nuclear or otherwise, is obviously preferable to working out what to do with it afterwards. Unfortunately, producing nuclear material for use in nuclear weapons was the number one purpose of nuclear reactors, with electricity generation being a useful spinoff, so reducing “waste” production is something of a no-no for the nuclear industry.

    • Krzysztof Kosinski says:

      “Unfortunately, producing nuclear material for use in nuclear weapons was the number one purpose of nuclear reactors, with electricity generation being a useful spinoff”

      This is wrong. Light water reactors were developed as a submarine propulsion technology. The first nuclear submarine (USS Nautilus) was completed three years before the first LWR-based nuclear power plant (Shippingport) went into operation.

      This is partially true for obsolete designs such as Magnox and for the British AGR design, but they are not used outside of the UK.

  11. Webcraft says:

    In the UK the Dounreay PFR (prototype fast reactor) closed in 1994. It was cooled by molten sodium, which became highly radioactive in the course of performing its cooling duties. The world’s largest liquid metal destruction plant was built specifically to destroy this sodium, and destruction of the bulk of this sodium was completed in August 2008, 14 years later.

    Decommissioning the PFR between 2008 and 2024 is expected to cost in the region of £338 million, though no doubt this sum will end up considerably higher.

    Highly radioactive liquid sodium in large quantities is not a sensible idea.

    • Tom Blees says:

      Webcraft writes: “In the UK the Dounreay PFR (prototype fast reactor) closed in 1994. It was cooled by molten sodium, which became highly radioactive in the course of performing its cooling duties. The world’s largest liquid metal destruction plant was built specifically to destroy this sodium, and destruction of the bulk of this sodium was completed in August 2008, 14 years later… Highly radioactive liquid sodium in large quantities is not a sensible idea.”

      Radioactive sodium is hardly the problem you describe. Here’s the story from one of the top scientists who worked on the EBR-II (the IFR project at Argonne Lab in Idaho), where they used a pool of sodium as a reactor coolant for over 30 years and then disposed of it:

      “Naturally occuring sodium isotope, Na-23 can capture a neutron and becomes Na-24, which is radioactive (beta-decay) with a 15-hour half-life. Na-24 should be essentially all gone in a few months. I don’t know the (n,2n) cross section value for Na-23 — should be very, very small. The (n,2n) reaction creates Na-22, which beta decays with a 2.6 year half life. Depending on how the reactor operated, the sodium coolant may have been contaminated by minute amounts of fission products. Even then, the sodium coolant from DFR would have a very, very low level of radioactivity, especially after 14 years. The reason they had to treat the sodium for disposal is not because of its radioactivity but because sodium is a reactive metal and cannot be disposed [of without treating it]. The EBR-II primary and secondary sodium had to be treated for the same reason before disposal. Sodium was reacted with steam to form sodium hydroxide (NaOH) and then disposed of in a landfill.”

  12. Hector Balint says:

    It’s a great sales pitch and it’s been around for quite a while. 1) Will a fullsize prototype get built? 2) Will it work? 3) Will “we” build thousands of them and humanity enjoy “better than free” electricity forever? It’s hard to see question 2 being answered in less than 20 years and quite a few things could go wrong. “An academic reactor or reactor plant almost always has the following basic characteristics: (1) It is simple. (2) It is small. (3) It is cheap. (4) It is light. (5) It can be built very quickly. (6) It is very flexible in purpose. (7) Very little development will be required. It will use off-the-shelf components. (8) The reactor is in the study phase. It is not being built now. On the other hand a practical reactor can be distinguished by the following characteristics: (1) It is being built now. (2) It is behind schedule. (3) It requires an immense amount of development on apparently trivial items. (4) It is very expensive. (5) It takes a long time to build because of its engineering development problems. (6) It is large. (7) It is heavy. (8) It is complicated.”
    Friends of the Earth? No. Rickover. Back in the 50′s explaining the difference between paper reactors and a real ones. “The academic-reactor designer is a dilettante. He has not had to assume any real responsibility in connection with his projects. He is free to luxuriate in elegant ideas, the practical shortcomings of which can be relegated to the category of “mere technical details.” The practical-reactor designer must live with these same technical details. Although recalcitrant and awkward, they must be solved and cannot be put off until tomorrow. Their solution requires manpower, time and money”
    Hyman Rickover, “The Father of the Nuclear Navy” was an engineer. Not really cut out for the PR dept.
    “Unfortunately for those who must make far-reaching decision without the benefit of an intimate knowledge of reactor technology, and unfortunately for the interested public, it is much easier to get the academic side of an issue than the practical side. For a large part those involved with the academic reactors have more inclination and time to present their ideas in reports and orally to those who will listen. Since they are innocently unaware of the real but hidden difficulties of their plans, they speak with great facility and confidence. Those involved with practical reactors, humbled by their experiences, speak less and worry more.”
    Tom Blees has done a good journalistic job of sexing up GE’s academic reactor proposal and given us “Prescription for the Planet”, but will anybody fill it?
    “… it is incumbent on those in high places to make wise decisions and it is reasonable and important that the public be correctly informed. It is consequently incumbent on all of us to state the facts as forthrightly as possible.”
    The historical facts regarding the costs and performance of FBRs are worth looking at. EDF has no plans to build anything resembling Superphenix, billions of euros down the drain. The organisation that built our own Douneray has ceased to exist, Joe Public picking up the cleaning bill. The wise and far-sighted men who run things in Japan are now restarting Monju fifteen years after the “minor” accident that shut it down. And the new one they’re building in Russia next to the leaky old one? Well they started in 1987 and it will be finished one day. The Enrico Fermi reactor at least had the distinction of inspiring a Gil Scot-Heron song- “We Almost Lost Detroit”. All in all, the “500 years reactor experience” have been mixed. Maybe the next 500 will be different.

    • Tom Blees says:

      Thanks for the left-handed compliment, though “sexing-up” wasn’t really what I was shooting for. Funny, as I read the first part of your post I was thinking that it applies pretty well to the IFR v LFTR question we hashed out previously, with the LFTR being the paper reactor.

      I find your glib dismissal of Russia’s “leaky old” fast reactor (I assume you refer to the BN-600, though the “leaky old” would more accurately refer to their Seventies-era BN-350) too clever by half. The fact that they haven’t built more of them is due to a number of factors, not the least of which is that they understand that there are more advanced designs they can pursue. Indeed, they have said very directly that they will now be doing so in the wake of the Fukushima fiasco. As for the BN-600, it will soon be capable of using metal fuel. Likewise India’s fast reactor, soon to come online. They have been working on metal fuel technology and plan to fuel a succession of fast reactors with it, though they decided to proceed with building the first one before the metal fuel R&D was finished and will convert to it when they’re ready, burning oxide in the interim.

      Japan’s decision to restart Monju (an oxide-fueled fast reactor) instead of building a metal-fueled more modern passive safety design was a matter of internal (infernal?) Japanese politics. Toshiba and Hitachi both wanted to go the metal-fuel route, but Mitsubishi carries an inordinate amount of clout among policymakers and the last thing they wanted was a Monju-size chunk of obsolete hardware on their hands. Poor decision, IMHO.

      As for France, SuperPhenix was a political nightmare. Scaling up the highly-successful Phenix (which they ran for over 30 years) to that size presented some technical problems that were eventually ironed out (it had a very respectable capacity factor in its last years of operation), but the politics of it were too much for it to bear. It was repeatedly shut down and restarted as much (or more) for political reasons as technical ones, and finally shut down altogether because of the politics. Eco-terrorists even shot rockets into the construction site when it was in the early stages of construction. To imply that its demise is a fault of the technology is quite off the mark. As for France’s future fast reactor plans, they are hardly pushing the envelope since AREVA’s invested billions in MOX recycling and are doing their best to slow the inevitable transition to fast reactors.

      Funny that Rickover would list as a characteristic of a practical reactor “It takes a long time to build because of its engineering development problems.” He went from zero to launching the first nuclear sub in less than eight years. Compared to that, fast reactor development is much farther along the curve. Your contention that it’ll take at least 20 years to build them is ridiculous given that Russia’s is still running, India’s will be online in a year or two, China just brought a small one online this month, and Korea has already built a facility for pyroprocessing (capable of fabricating the metal fast reactor fuel from recycled LWR spent fuel). I find your dismissive attitude a bit hard to credit given these facts.

  13. It used to be acknowledged in the US nuclear industry that waste manage- ment, or lack of it, was the big potential show stopper. Glen Seaborg, when he was the boss, explicitly stated it. Of course he (who as a young man had “discovered” plutonium) expected the fuel cycle to have been closed years ago but this has not happened and what the US now has is an unsustainable mess. A highly profitable mess for politically well connected corporations that have acquired much of the aging reactor fleet at its depreciated value and can arrange the necessary licensing and regulation to run it till doomsday, so to speak.
    Your remark about Rickover got me thinking. My hypothesis is that if he was a young man today he would probably be working on Wall Street and perhaps designing a few “lifters” in his spare time. Seaborg’s working for google. We got “structural problems”!
    The book is great, it got me thinking. However before it can convincingly be stated that thousands of IFR’s can supply the world’s energy requirements somebody is going to have to build and run one that is 50 times bigger than the EBR2 in conditions other than the top secrecy that surrounded that project. Failing that, one FBR sometime, somewhere, verifiably running a closed fuel cycle would be helpful to the case. One would never guess this from the article above, but back on Planet Earth such a thing has yet to take place.
    The FBR project worldwide started about 50 years ago and has consumed around 100 billion dollars. The viabilty of the closed fuel cycle was theorised in about 1943 but has not been demonstrated. Why is that?

  14. Tom Blees says:

    Actually the reactor will only need to be about 16 times bigger than the EBR-II, which produced 19MWe. The PRISM that we hope to build is a relatively small modular reactor design that will generate about 300-350. But really, fast reactors are and have been operational and reliable at considerably larger sizes than the EBR-II. Russia’s BN-600 puts out (as you might surmise) about 600MW and has been running for over 30 years. France’s Phenix (not to be confused with the SuperPhenix) was a 233MWe pool-type fast reactor (like the EBR-II and PRISM) that ran for 36 years.

    I grant you that “before it can convincingly be stated that thousands of IFR’s can supply the world’s energy requirements somebody is going to have to build and run one…” It won’t have to be 50 times bigger and the EBR-II wasn’t a top secret project. There’s plenty of information out there about it. Based on its history and that of other fast reactors past, present and future, one can confidently predict that thousands of IFRs could indeed supply the world’s energy requirements, but you’re right, in order to convince people we have to build and run one with the metal fuel and closed fuel cycle. Russia (as I may have mentioned earlier) is preparing to run metal fuel in the BN-600, as will India and, eventually, South Korea. And the metal fuel and its pyroprocessing is one of the key features of the IFR. Far from being prohibitively complex, however, it is incredibly simple to both fabricate the fuel, use it, and recycle it—far simpler than oxide fuel.

    The question of why this hasn’t been done is a multifaceted one. Despite theorizing about the closed fuel cycle since 1943, the pyroprocessing technique for reactor fuel and the resultant metal fuel wasn’t demonstrated until the EBR-II project, which as you know was killed by Congress in 1994 (which goes to show that our current Congress isn’t the only one that’s done stupid things). There are a whole host of reasons why we haven’t pursued this in the subsequent years: politics, budgets, the status quo, ignorance, etc. Now it’s finally going to get done. Having worked for years with those who developed the IFR, I am extremely confident that its potential will soon be splendidly demonstrated but, as you say, “convincingly” is the operative word. Fortunately they’ll be quite easy to mass produce, so when the time comes we won’t have to wait a long time for serious deployment to take place.

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