It seems like something that only a crazed conspiracy theorist would come up with. A source of carbon-free energy that holds the potential to provide base load power for the planet for thousands of years hence, and which could be built along the existing transmission grid and even be housed within retrofitted coal-fired power stations. A process that could eat existing nuclear waste instead of needing to store it in highly secure vaults such as Yucca Mountain for hundreds of millennia. A technology that enjoyed large investments in R&D by government, only to have the funding zeroed for political reasons when close to large-scale demonstration — and then the scientists involved told not to publicise this fact. Well that, in caricature, is the basic story of Integral Fast Reactor (IFR) nuclear power.
Perhaps it is too good to be true — almost everything that’s been hyped as ‘the future of…’ is, after all. But not everything — the exceptions to the ‘hype rule’ now dominate our modern technological society (home computers, mobile communications, satellite communications, etc.). So what if IFR is the real deal? Well, some very clever folks have been looking into this and conclude that it is — or at least worth pushing. As I described in an earlier post, Hansen is among them — at least in terms of seeing the value in giving this tech a fair go — and he’s certainly not alone. Mark Lynas for instance, author of ‘Six Degrees‘, has also pitched in.
There are some great resources out on the web, and a new book, for those of you who want to know more about IFR nuclear — in order to make your own informed judgement about whether you choose to advocate it. Steve Kirsch, a Californian entrepreneur who invented the optical mouse (and former nuclear agnostic), has written a great summary article about IFR here (h/t to JM) and a shorter Silicon Valley newspaper Op Ed here. Steve’s website provides a wealth of links to additional information on IFR and related developments. The PBC television programme ‘Frontline’ recently interviewed nuclear physicist and IFR co-developer Dr. Charles Till — the transcript is available here.
Kirsch summarises the key advantages of IFR as follows:
1. It can be fueled entirely with material recovered from today’s used nuclear fuel.
2. It consumes virtually all the long-lived radioactive isotopes that worry people who are concerned about the “nuclear waste problem,” reducing the needed isolation time to less than 500 years.
3. It could provide all the energy needed for centuries (perhaps as many as 50,000 years), feeding only on the uranium that has already been mined.
4. It uses uranium resources with 100 to 300 times the efficiency of today’s reactors.
5. It does not require enrichment of uranium.
6. It has less proliferation potential than the reprocessing method now used in several countries.
7. It’s 24×7 baseline power.
8. It can be built anywhere there is water.
9. The power is very inexpensive (some estimates are as low as 2 cents/kWh to produce).
10. Safe from melt down because if something goes wrong, the reactor naturally shuts down rather than blows up.
11. And, of course, it emits no greenhouse gases.
Key disadvantages (from the Wikipedia article) are given as:
1. Because the current cost of reactor-grade enriched uranium is low compared to the expected cost of large-scale pyroprocessing and electrorefining equipment and the cost of building a secondary coolant loop, the higher fuel costs of a thermal reactor over the expected operating lifetime of the plant are offset by the increased capital cost of an IFR. (Currently in the United States, utilities pay a flat rate of 1/10 of a cent per kilowatt hour for disposal of high level radioactive waste. If this charge were based on the longevity of the waste, then the IFR might become more financially competitive.)
2. Reprocessing nuclear fuel using pyroprocessing and electrorefining has not yet been demonstrated on a commercial scale. As such, investing in a large IFR plant is considered a higher financial risk than a conventional light water reactor.
3. The flammability of sodium. Sodium burns easily in air, and will ignite spontaneously on contact with water. The use of an intermediate coolant loop between the reactor and the turbines minimizes the risk of a sodium fire in the reactor core.
4. Under neutron bombardment, sodium-24 is produced. This is highly radioactive, emitting an energetic gamma ray of 2.7 MeV followed by a beta decay to form magnesium-24. Half life is only 15 hours, so this isotope is not a long-term hazard – indeed it has medical applications. Nevertheless, the presence of sodium-24 further necessitates the use of the intermediate coolant loop between the reactor and the turbines.
Tom Blees has spend the last few years writing a book on IFR and a few related techs (such as ‘boron power’ for vehicles) called ‘Prescription for the Planet‘, which Hansen referred to, and it has received unanimous highly favourable reviews at Amazon. (side note: if you want a contrasting view, see Helen Caldicott’s book ‘Nuclear Power is Not the Answer ‘). I can’t vouch for the quality of Blees’ book myself, but I’ve ordered it and will post a book review here on BNC once I’ve had it delivered and mentally digested.
Something I found really useful in addressing my doubts and scepticism about the feasibility, safety and scalability of the IFR process, were two Question & Answer overviews / FAQs. This includes a detailed refutation of all of the ‘cons’ listed above. One is written by IFR project physicist Dr George Stanford called ‘Integral Fast Reactors: Source of Safe, Abundant, Non-Polluting Power‘ . The other was put together as a compilation by Kirsch, and integrates a collection of comments from Blees, Stanford, Carl Page and some quotes from those who have reviewed the material.
Read these, judge for yourself, and feel free to post comments here — I (and others I hope) will do my best to answer you or direct you to the right material to get your answers. I’d appreciate continuing the critical examination of this that was started in the two other posts.
Does the above mean I’ve given up on my strong push for large-scale renewables? Absolutely not (!), and for a nation like Australia, solar thermal, wind, wave, geothermal and microalgal biodiesel, along with energy efficiency and conservation, should be a primary focus for the next decade. But I strongly doubt they will ever be wholly sufficient [I'll explain why in another post. Update I - read here]. That’s why IFR and similar techs also desperately need our support — not our unthinking denigration just because we may have some ingrained distaste for anything nuclear.
We can’t predict what will ultimately deliver the best solutions to society, in terms of securing a near-zero-emissions energy supply and arming us with the tools the avoid catastrophic climate change. To do this, we must use whatever options are at our disposal, and push these potential solutions as fast and hard as we possibly can.
Update II – See comments that follow this posting for a further detailed round of Q&A on the feasibility of IFR.