Here is the follow-up post on the IFR by Steve Kirsch. The first can be read here. This is long (loooong), but it really says it all. Steve worked on a tonne of revisions to this piece before finally submitting this to HuffPo. It has been checked and confirmed by a bunch of the key IFR scientists. If you really want to know the real situation of the IFR story, and where it currently stands, take a deep breath, and read this!
These [safety] effects are not theoretical or subject to informed challenge. They have been proven by full-scale experiments in the assemblage of fast reactor test facilities in Idaho by Argonne National Laboratory.
IFRs also meet the four requirements (transparency, security, waste, and proliferation) that President Obama recently laid out as a pre-requisite for using nuclear energy. Till pointed this out four years ago.
Even though the initial capital costs of these plants are high, over the 60 year lifetime of the plants, they are a small fraction of the cost of generating power from renewables.
Other countries are building fourth generation nuclear reactors
Russia, China, and India are building fast nuclear reactors now and the French plan to begin construction in 2012 with completion by 2020. Japan plans to build a prototype fast reactor by 2025.
Russians scientists independently found the same thing the scientists at Argonne have been saying for years: these plants are safer and less expensive to build and operate than existing nuclear plants and they solve the nuclear waste problem while providing a virtually inexhaustible power source. The Russians also realized a key point that the 2003 MIT report on the Future of Nuclear Power had missed: that if nuclear power grows faster than people think, large scale deployment of fast reactors will absolutely be required in as little as 25 years from now (see the first paragraph of BN-800 as a New Stage in the Development of Fast Sodium-Cooled Reactors).
In the US, the complexity of understanding the science combined with an abundance of misperception and misinformation has stalled any progress on fast nuclear technology
Dr. Hansen and scientists at MIT are urging Obama to build fast reactors now. House Members Jerry McNerney (D-CA) and Judy Biggert (R-IL) agree.
But what about Al Gore? The environmental groups? What do they think? The problem is that there is so much misinformation in the nuclear space and the science is so complicated that it takes a reasonably large investment of time to really understand what is going on so you can sort truth from fiction. Al Gore has looked at fast reactors, but hasn’t taken a position on the issue and it’s likely he never will. The top environmental groups have either been too busy to be briefed, have no nuclear expert on staff qualified to be briefed, or have already taken an anti-nuclear position before the briefing and have no interest in impartially weighing the facts.
At the most recent Aspen Institute Energy Forum held March 25-28, the experts talked about how difficult tackling all three issues together: environment, economy, energy. Sure, I agree. It’s difficult to impossible without the IFR. But the IFR enables us to solve all three simultaneously. But it wasn’t brought up by anyone, even though the attendees acknowledged nuclear had to be part of the solution. This is a big problem that the “big thinker” experts assembled at Aspen seemed to be completely unaware of the world’s best nuclear design.
The former top civilian nuclear guy at DOE thinks we are nuts for not pursuing this technology
Ray Hunter was Deputy Director of the Office of Nuclear Energy, Science and Technology in the U.S. DOE. At the time of his retirement in 1998, he was the most knowledgeable senior person in the government on civilian reactor research and development. He spent more than 29 years in DOE and predecessor agencies working on developing advanced nuclear reactors for civilian nuclear power applications. He’s seen it all. He’s heard all the arguments from every side multiple times. His conclusions are the same as Hansen; he thinks it is a huge mistake that we are not pursuing the IFR technology we invented at Argonne.
On December 23, 2008, Hunter wrote a letter to Senators Reid, McCain, Bingaman, and Mikulski explaining that before his retirement, he was the Director of the Office of Nuclear Energy at DOE and pointing out that “the energy content contained in LWR spent fuel and depleted uranium resulting from weapons production and enriched LWR new fuel production exceeds all the known oil reserves in the world.” He pointed out that we have the technology to safely and securely harness that power and eliminate our nuclear waste at the same time. Hunter received no response to his letter; Senator Mikulski’s office thanked him for sharing his thoughts but did not respond to any of his comments. But I don’t blame these Senators at all. It’s unlikely that any US Senator ever saw Hunter’s letter; in each case, a staff person decided that his thoughts were not significant enough to bring to their Senator’s attention.
It’s not clear that we can rely on the DOE to make the right decisions
I recently wrote to the DOE offering to have the scientists who were directly involved in the IFR brief Secretary of Energy Chu on our most important source of energy. I received this email response from the DOE that a briefing was unnecessary as there are many people in DOE who are knowledgable about the IFR and that “the IFR definitely lives on.” I said if that was true, then how it is possible that DOE wants to dispose of all the fuel that could be used to power these reactors? I received no response to my question.
I then asked Hunter how could it be that both Secretary Chu and DOE are saying fast reactors are good, while at the same time announcing plans to destroy the material that could be used to power them. I received the following response:
The main reason that nuclear energy development is so screwed up in DOE is that critical elements e.g. nonproliferation, waste, and nuclear R&D are in separate organizations all reporting to the Secretary. It requires real head knocking to integrate the pieces to have a rational program and there is no one in DOE sufficiently interested in nuclear to perform this task.
Sadly, many people now at DOE are content to not make any waves. They just do what they are told.
The disenchantment with the DOE is not just from people inside the DOE, but the dysfunction inside the DOE is also negatively impacting the quality of talent at our national labs. I received this email from a scientist who spent 33 years at Argonne including 10 years working on the IFR:
I was there at the birth of the IFR, in late 1983, and still there at the cancellation in 1994.My main beat was demonstration of the pyroprocess fuel cycle, which morphed into “EBR-II fuel treatment” post-1994. I was on the U. Chicago bid team which competed for the INL contract in 2004.When BEA wonthe contractand assumed command of the entire Idaho site in early 2005, ANL-W went away and was absorbed into INL.To this day most of the ANL-W people, and I think ALL of the key people who haven’t retired or gone on, are very disenchanted with the inability to get much work done in the DOE environment.
A POUND OF URANIUM (ABOUT THE VOLUME OFA TENNIS BALL) CONTAINS THE ENERGY EQUIVALENT TO ABOUT 5,000 BARRELS OF OIL! And we have about a MILLION TONS OF URANIUM in storage (as waste), from which we have only extracted about 1% of the contained energy.
People from other countries who have looked at the facts objectively came to the same conclusion Russia, India, France, China, Japan, and South Korea did.
Prominent Australian climate scientist Barry Brook admitted that he spent months educating himself on fourth generation nuclear before he came to the same conclusion Hansen did. In fact, before Brook heard about fourth generation nuclear, he thought the global warming problem was intractable because his own calculations confirmed the observations of many others (including Energy Secretary Steven Chu, MIT President Susan Hockfield and US Senator Lamar Alexander) regarding the necessity of nuclear power due to the problems with renewables being able to scale to meet our energy needs. With fourth generation nuclear in the mix, Brook has gone from being a climate pessimist to being an optimist about our ability to replace our existing energy sources with carbon-free power. He’s written extensively about the IFR on his site, more so than any climate scientist on the planet.
The Green case against nuclear power is based largely on myth and dogma
Noted UK environmental writer Mark Lynas did the same thing Brook did…objectively looked at the evidence. He came to the same conclusion as Brook and Hansen. He wrote about his “conversion” in an article in the Sunday Times on September 28, 2008:
Just a month ago I had a Damascene conversion: the Green case against nuclear power is based largely on myth and dogma. My tipping point came when I discovered just how much nuclear power has changed since I first set my mind against it. Prescription for the Planet, a new book by the American writer Tom Blees, opened my eyes to fourth-generation “fast-breeder” reactors, which use fuel much more efficiently than the old-style reactors, produce shorter-lived waste and can also be designed to be “walk-away safe”.
Lynas wrote how he was criticized by his peers for supporting nuclear, but privately some of them admitted that they agreed with him.
In our own country, GE-Hitachi Nuclear Energy and a consortium of America’s major corporations (including Babcock & Wilcox, Bechtel, Westinghouse, and Raytheon) came to the same conclusion. They have a reactor design, the PRISM, that is ready to be built based on the original Argonne IFR design.
There is a lot of misinformation about nuclear
“Even though nuclear supplies the vast majority of our carbon-free power and even though fourth generation nuclear is more than 100 times more efficient as existing nuclear, and even though the waste products are minimal and short-lived, and even though these reactors have been demonstrated to be inherently safe, and even though these reactors can use our existing nuclear waste as fuel and virtually eliminate our $100 billion nuclear waste problem, and even though other countries such as Russia, China, India, Japan, and France are either building or planning to build these plants, and even though we can power our entire planet for thousands of years from our existing uranium resources without any CO2 emissions, and the energy content contained in LWR spent fuel and depleted uranium resulting from weapons production and enriched LWR new fuel production exceeds all the known oil reserves in the world, and even though the US Congress voted to fund fourth generation nuclear every year for 10 years from 1984 to 1993, we haven’t spent any time discussing the role of fourth generation nuclear in this Congress or in any Congress in the last 15 years and this is probably very short-sighted of us.”
After the bill was drafted, Lisa Price, senior vice president of GE-Hitachi testified before the House Science and Technology committee on June 18, 2009 about the benefits of IFRs. The bill hasn’t changed.
Today’s nuclear designs are substantially better than the reactors built 30 years ago. For example, the new Babcox and Wilcox mPower reactor can be constructed in only 3 years, is scalable (it can produce as little as 125 megawatts making it economical for smaller regions), air-cooled (so the water needs are minimal), and it can store its waste underground for 60 years.
Twelve reasons we should spend $3B to build a demonstration IFR plant today
Here are my top 12 reasons as to why the IFR (and pyroprocessing of LWR spent fuel) is the right thing to do now for the nation and for the world:
We need a vision for the future of nuclear; one we can commit to long-term
The current funding for nuclear is fragmented without a clear direction. We need to establish a clear, long-term plan for advanced nuclear. We must make sure we have a clear understanding of why we are doing this so we don’t keep revisiting this issue and changing our minds. I think the only way to create such a plan is to assemble a very small team of people who really understand the issues involved. Ray Hunter could give you a list. It’s a very short list. The key to making this work well is in the selection of the people. Pick the wrong people and this is a terrible idea. Pick the right people and it’s brilliant. A key part of that plan should be to immediately appropriate the $3B to build a 311 MWe prototype fourth generation reactor and a pilot commercial-scale pyroprocessing plant
Listen to scientists, not ideology
Recently, Senator Barbara Boxer laid out six principles for fighting global warming that are “simple, but extremely important.” Number one on Boxer’s list is: “Listen to scientists, not ideology.” That’s a great principle and we should all be paying attention.
Nuclear energy is our largest carbon-free power source today. We have one US national laboratory that is run by the US DOE whose primary mission is to “ensure the nation’s energy security with safe, competitive, and sustainable energy systems:” Idaho National Laboratory. So why aren’t we heeding Senator Boxer’s advice and paying attention to what those scientists have accomplished and listening to what they are telling us today?
If for some reason we shouldn’t listen to ANL, then shouldn’t we listen to the 242 scientists from all over the country that DOE asked to evaluate which was the best nuclear technology?
Finally, the main reason we are in this crisis situation today is due to our government’s lack of a long term vision and strategy with respect to global warming. So we need to be sure not to make the same mistake again.
The good news is that key members of Congress realize that this isn’t just a local problem. To stabilize the climate, we basically have to completely eliminate the emissions from every coal plant on the planet and we don’t have a lot of time to accomplish that.
The bad news is their plan to achieve that goal has virtually no chance of success.
Would you bet your planet on our current strategy?
Here’s their plan: we are going to invest in carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) to see if we can make it work at scale, make it reliable, commercialize it, then export it to other countries who will adopt it for all their coal plants.
In short, they are banking the future of humanity on exporting a technology that doesn’t yet exist at scale, that may never exist, that even if it exists would likely be extremely hard to implement reliably, that nobody really wants (since it is only for the environment), that would be easy to cheat, that would probably raise the price of electricity to be unaffordably high, and that can be economically added only to coal plants that were originally constructed with CCS in mind of which there are none.
Holy cow… that’s a lot of assumptions. Is that our official core strategy to save the planet??!?!?! I wouldn’t want to bet my planet on that strategy and I don’t think you should either.
The only realistic way to ‘win the energy game’ is to develop an energy source that is cheaper than coal
Fortunately, there is a smarter long-term strategy for getting everyone on the planet off of coal and it doesn’t rely on goodwill, mandates, and/or trade policy coercion. It relies on pure economics.
My plan is simple: make IFR technology so cheap that running a coal plant will be the dumb economic decision.
I’d start by focusing my resources on my most promising technology. So I’d invest in commercializing our IFR technology that we invented 25 years ago. I’d do that immediately while the people who worked on the original project are still alive. This would have a side benefit in that it would give the people in our national labs a fantastic project to work on: a project that is both important to the world and scientifically challenging, much like the 1960′s space program that put man on the moon. Once a few plants have been built, I’d invest lots of money to figure out ways to lower the construction costs through modularization and mass production. Then I’d have the US (in partnership with other countries we want to share the wealth with) finance construction of the plants in foreign countries, and make partnerships with the local government to jointly build and operate the plants so they would benefit too. In short, we could be the power supplier to the world if we are aggressive in investment and capturing market share.
My plan would displace existing coal plants because it would provide power at a cheaper cost than coal. It would be the equivalent of Wal-Mart moving into town and displacing the higher priced competitors. And of course, it will also eliminate the construction of new coal plants. Coal gets wiped out because a cheaper, more reliable, cleaner, and safer technology made it obsolete.
The heat from an IFR can be used for reprocessing a clean lower cost transportation fuel
There is one more thing I’d do. Instead of subsidizing the fossil fuel industry, I’d spend that money on commercializing technologies like using boron as a transportation fuel. The heat produced by IFRs can be used to reprocess boron used to fuel transportation at virtually no incremental cost. Using boron as a transportation fuel would take up as much space and weight as gasoline, but it’s a completely recyclable, clean fuel (more precisely an energy carrier) with no emissions. The price per “gas gallon equivalent” would be a tiny fraction of the price of gasoline. So we’d clean up the air, eliminate greenhouse gas emissions, save money on every tank of “gas,” and eliminate our dependence on foreign oil. You can’t do that if you are building networks of renewable plants. By investing in IFRs, you have more options for future transportation fuels that can be used either as the sole fuel, or as the fuel in a boron-electric hybrid vehicle.
While we’re doing the R&D for boron engines we can convert existing internal combustion engines to run on ammonia, which has already been done. Ammonia in this case would work as a hydrogen carrier, the hydrogen being easily produced by electrolysis powered by IFRs and then made into ammonia (NH3) with nitrogen from the air. Ultimately boron would be a better energy carrier because of its lack of volatility, solid form, and energy density, but if we want to get off oil ASAP, ammonia-powered cars can help get us there faster. These engines have already been built.
In my plan, the benefits to the US would be huge:
The benefits to the world are huge in terms of CO2 reduction and air quality. It also solves the nuclear waste problem of other countries which, if left unchecked, could turn into a very messy situation.
The host country benefits too: they get cheaper power, they can prematurely retire their coal plants, and they get to clean up their air.
Everyone wins. And nobody has to debate whether global warming is a problem or not. Everything is justified on pure economics. What’s wrong with that?
Apparently nothing. We know that the Russians are, in fact, planning to do precisely the plan I laid out. They aren’t stupid. We shouldn’t be either.
The amount of space required to generate huge amounts of electricity is quite small. Here’s a picture of a completely self-contained 1.8GWe IFR plant including 6 modular reactors and an on-site reprocessing facility capable of powering 1.4M homes:
Under my IFR strategy, after a small government investment and a willingness to allow these plants to be built, you could simply let economics take over. No Congressional mandates are required. Not that we can get such mandates anyway. For example, the renewable energy use requirements in the energy bills in both the House and Senate have been watered down so much in order to attract votes as to be meaningless (requiring virtually no change from the status quo).
Unfortunately, science, facts, and logic are simply no match for special interest money, perception, bias, misinformation, and beliefs. So I can have all the facts and all the most informed and smartest experts on my side like Hansen and Hunter and all the objective analysis like that two year DOE study showing the IFR was the best nuclear design, but that may not be enough.
Senator Lamar Alexander gets it. He is trying to revive nuclear energy in Congress. I hope he is wildly successful.
There are so many benefits to reviving the IFR: global warming, low cost energy, climate change, nuclear waste disposal, powering clean, low-cost transportation, and so on. You could justify it on any single benefit alone. At $3B to build a demonstration plant, it’s a cheap insurance policy in case the official strategies don’t pan out. That’s pretty hard to argue against, especially when the stakes are planetary in scope.
My favorite argument for the IFR leaves my opponents completely unable to refute its logic and simplicity:
Since nuclear is still our largest CO2-free power source (even after 30 years of not building a nuclear plant), I remain totally baffled why Congress isn’t allocating the $3B to build a demonstration IFR plant. When I make my 2 point argument and ask that question, I am greeted with “I’ll check that out with my staff” and then you never hear from them again. When you try to arrange a briefing with the staff, they are too busy to meet with you (or in the case of Waxman-Markey’s staff, couldn’t tell me who their nuclear expert was or even who might know who their nuclear expert was).