IFR FaD 1 – Context

As a complement to TCASE category, I’m starting another series of posts on the Integral Fast Reactor design for sustainable nuclear power, called IFR FaD (facts and discussion). There are many, many issues worth raising about this Gen IV nuclear power, and I hope to cover them here, in brief, manageable chunks.

There won’t be any natural sequence to the posts — it will be idiosyncratic, covering whatever aspect I feel interested in writing about at the time. I might also be influenced by a question that’s come up in another thread. Perhaps, when many of these have been completed, I’ll try to order them into a more logically arranged FAQ, or some such. But that’s looking a bit too far ahead.

Anyway, before I start, a few points of context.

First, to make sense of these posts, you’ll need to have at least a basic understanding of what the IFR is (history and key technological features). Nothing profound — but if your first question is “what is the IFR?” or worse “what is nuclear power?” — then I suggest you read these 3 posts and listen to these 3 radio programmes that I’ve recorded in the last year. Or, if you’re feeling particularly inspired to get well grounded, read all the relevant posts on BNC.

Second, the focus of this series is aimed squarely at the Integral Fast Reactor (IFR) rather than other Gen IV designs, such as the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR) or Advanced High Temperature Reactor (AHTR). The reason for this is two fold: (i) I’m more familiar with the IFR technology (and I am in regular email exchange with the world experts on this technology, via SCGI and other links), and (ii) LFTR has a strong and welcoming advocacy group elsewhere, and I’d encourage people to go there to ask more questions about that technology (you can also ask the very approachable Prof Per Peterson about the AHTR on the Energy from Thorium forums). However, I should make it quite clear that I’m not “for IFR and against LFTR” — both 4th generation nuclear designs hold great appeal to me, and I will sometimes consider IFR vs LFTR comparisons in the IFR FaD series, as a point of comparison or contrast.

To give BNC readers a feel for the range of ideas I intend to cover in these short posts (each about 500 — 1000 words long), here’s a sampling of my recent brainstorming on IFR FaD. (If you have other points you’d like me to add to this list, please do let me know and I’ll add them to the pile).

fissile inventory; breeding rates; synergy with ALWRs and LFTRs; global deployment rates to 2050 and beyond; metal vs oxide fuel; loop vs pool design; sodium coolant; passive safety; heat exchanger safety; hard spectrum reactor control; reactor size optimality;  S-PRISM and LSPB; relationship to GIF; construction costs; CO2-intensity; LCOE projections; near-term IFR prospects; medium-term IFR prospects; sustainability of fuel supply; waste management; historical fast reactor failures; historical fast reactor successes; operating and planned fast reactors; pyroprocessing; LWR used fuel recycling; proliferation resistance; EBR-II; decommissioning; operating temperatures and thermodynamic cycles.

Remember, there’s no particular order to the above, and I’m sure there’s plenty more topics — that list is really just a taster. Suggestions appreciated.

If the above terms don’t mean anything to you, fear not. In time, each of them will do — and, I hope, you’ll find the learning exercise interesting (to me, any of those topics are fascinating!). That’s what IFR FaD aims to do — give you the facts and figures, and dispel the myths, behind the IFR story.

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  1. This is good, IFR technology should get more exposure if only so that informed choices can be made.

    I personally do not subscribe to the ether/or approach to nuclear reactor design. I suspect that most types will find places where some unique feature will make them the best economic fit. The deployment of one single type can also have the effect of putting too much pressure on material and manufacturing sources, and this also makes for certain vulnerabilities to critical supplies down the line.

    It’s just a simple case of not putting all out eggs in one basket.

  2. Barry, can I suggest you called this “FaD”, I think it looks better than “FAD” which makes it seem like the noun of the same spelling.

    I am a LFTR advocate but recognize the advance of IFR over LFTR in terms of buy in from the scientific community and governments.

    Barry…I was wondering if it would be possible to review the differences between types of fast reactors. The IFR is a fast reactor, of course, but there are already fast reactors on line and being built in India, China and Russia. But are the IFRs? If not, why not and what are the advantages of the IFR over other forms of Fast Reactors?


  3. You’re probably way ahead of me on this, and your list above may already address this under the “pyroprocessing” and “proliferation resistance” headings, but since I don’t see PUREX mentioned specifically I thought I’d share. One area I’ve noticed that tends to cause confusion for nuclear newbies (a confusion that the anti’s delight in exploiting BTW… all the way into the US Halls of Congress, no less!) is blurring the line between PUREX and pyroprocessing. As you know the distinction is huge and can hardly be over-emphasized.

  4. Business SA advocates nuclear industry for South Australia:

    SOUTH Australia should actively develop a nuclear energy industry and investigate the storage of nuclear waste in the Outback, says Business SA.

    The industry would take advantage of the state’s world-leading uranium resources and make SA a major contributor in the global fight against climate change, it says in a major environmental statement launched today.

    “Any serious response to the challenges of climate change and energy security must include nuclear energy,” Business SA chief executive Peter Vaughan said.

    “A nuclear energy industry in SA would ensure that economic development is environmentally sustainable, by providing the energy needed to drive economic growth while not increasing greenhouse gas emissions.”

    Read it in full here:

  5. I think what the business lobbyist says is right; nuclear is the best thing SA has going for it. The Olympic Dam expansion needs a big new power source and integrated desalination plant. Logically that should be on the SA west coast. It can’t be long before Adelaide summer temps routinely crack 50C. The RO desal under construction at Pt Stanvac apart from extra CO2 emissions may not be enough. So SA could build a second NPP and desal nearer Adelaide on Fleurieu Peninsula. The State could then export summer power not blow the fuse on interstate substations.

    SA has hi tech manufacturing that could surely play a role. Pt Adelaide’s Submarine Corporation has expertise in titanium welding and pressure vessels. Whether relevant or not it has that general vibe. The IFR connection is they could be built next door to current generation NPPs.

  6. Finrod, that’s until news of it gets picked up by an anti-nuclear group and they send in their poll-rigging-autobot. It will then magically jump in completely the opposite direction — like last time (on AdelaideNow and the ANSTO poll that Crikey made such a fuss over). Or am I just getting too cynical?

  7. Or am I just getting too cynical?

    Not by a long shot. If that happens again, of course, it must be publicised as widely as possible so everyone can be brought to understand how desperate these groups have become.

  8. Barry – you are going to have to add ‘materials’ to your list. This is a sore issue with all fast-spectrum reactor designs: what do you make these thing out of such that they will last a commercially significant amount of time in service, given that the components are all being ripped-up at the atomic level by a continuous hard flux of neutrons.

    There are some ideas out there but the problem has not yet been solved to anyones satisfaction as yet.

  9. Barry, in reviewing the component technologies of an IFR I think it would be a good idea, if possible, to indicate where they have already been realized in existing reactors or other industrial processes and what if any technological gaps need to be closed.

    The meme that Gen IV reactors are a ‘non-existent’ technology appears to be developing as the standard response of the antis, as if no one has ever implemented a new process from known technologies, and I’m getting kinda sick of hearing it. If you want a non-existent technology, how about an all renewables grid + storage + transmission?

  10. DV82XL, some of those fast neutrons are captured in the sodium pool. Any idea what fraction make it to the reactor vessel wall, and to what extent they are moderated by inelastic scattering through all that sodium? The EBR-II vessel looked very good from the point of view of material compatibility with the sodium, but I don’t know how well it stood up to the neutron flux.

  11. John D Morgan – To make a long story short, practical manifestations of enhanced irradiation creep, swelling, and loss of ductility were all experienced on EBR-II components. Keeping in mind that this was only a 60MWt unit, scaling power is going to make these issues scale as well.

  12. Thank you for these very informative posts about nuclear issues!

    One question: Can IFR use thorium?

    One suggestion: Perhaps you could write a summary of the pyroprocessing method. Has it been ever been used to produce nuclear fuel and in what dimension? I think the method is about the same used for example to extract aluminium from the ore. What kind of wastes does it producing. There is the fission products off course but how about other byproducts? Any wastes coming out as liquid or gas making it difficult to store for a long time.

  13. @DV82XL and JD Morgan: it is amusing how you and all other number-crunching techies and de facto free marketeers on this blog remain silent on the political matters raised by the Blog Patron Saint, Tom Blees, in his book. Tom describes the need for his acronym GREAT, to wit: removal of all future NPPs from private ownership and internationalisation of “Newclear” power. And that means in SA as well by implication.

    Such internationalisation is required because of inherent and dangerous profit-driven collusion between private sector NPP operators and their oversight body in e.g. the USA on matters of 1. deficient operator training 2. materials quality. 3. plant safety issues.

    Secondly, (although Tom does not go into this) there is the problem of bureaucratic malfeasance eg suppression of reports on NPP malfunction by public sector NPP operators, as exemplifed by the history of NPPs in France.

    If Technofixers claim that an IFR, unlike Gens I-III, has no operational safety, proliferation and waste issues because of its design, they might like to consult Patron Saint Blees on it and learn otherwise. But even such consultation avoids the awkward matter of only Gen III being available for installation at present.

    So I find it an example of startling bad faith that Gen III and that particular one of the 6 Gen. IV NPP types called IFR are conflated in this blog with respect to their desirability.

    So I would appreciate a clear and unevasive statement from a Technofixer that the total number of deaths from Gen III accidents including those from the weapons proliferation that Gen III permits, is vastly preferable to, because lower than, the sum of current and future deaths of fossil fuel victims plus global warming victims.

    As Tom puts it, standing in the way of the IFR is power and money: nuclear weapons makers, biofuel makers, fossil fuel suppliers. Not that you would guess it from this blog. How naive does a blogger living in the Australian armaments capital of Adelaide have to be to overlook this Wikipedia entry and what it implies for any nuclear industry resting on Gen III:

    “Adelaide is home to a large proportion of Australia’s defence industries, which contribute over AU$1 billion to South Australia’s Gross State Product. 70% of Australian defence companies are located in Adelaide. The principal government military research institution, the Defence Science and Technology Organisation, and other defence technology organisations such as BAE Systems Australia and Lockheed Martin Australia, are located north of Salisbury and west of Elizabeth in an area now called “Edinburgh Parks”, near RAAF Base Edinburgh.

    Others, such as Saab Systems, are located in or near Technology Park. The Australian Submarine Corporation, based in the industrial suburb of Osborne, was charged with constructing Australia’s Collins class submarines[28][not in citation given] and more recently the AU$6 billion contract to construct the Royal Australian Navy’s new air-warfare destroyers.[29]“

  14. As a follow up to John D. Morgan’s point that anti’s portray IFR’s as non-existent… a possible angle to attack that position.

    The anti’s often insist that massive efforts of an Apollo/Manhattan Project-like scale would plug the gaps and solve all of the technological/basic science vacuums associated with the renewable paradigm. Obviously it is rank hypocrisy not to apply the same logic to nuclear, but to point that out is a dead end… it feeds into their preference for emotional argument rather than logical debate.

    Maybe a better way is to explain that huge crash programs such as the Manhattan Project are not appropriate to all scientific problems… in particular, such programs are unlikely to be effective in fields where the basic science is not yet in place. Rather, they are best suited to problems where the needs are primarily in the realm of engineering.

    From this angle, the IFR tech is a much better candidate for such an effort compared and contrasted with the renewable scenarios, all of which require genuine theoretical “breakthroughs” in various and distinct disciplines in order to be viable… just a thought.

    DV82XL – I was unaware that neutron damage was an unresolved and limiting factor… do you have a link or something where I could bone up on the issue? I don’t want to pester you with a bunch of questions…

  15. “it is amusing how you and all other number-crunching techies and de facto free marketeers on this blog remain silent on the political matters raised by the Blog Patron Saint, Tom Blees, in his book.”

    “If Technofixers claim”

    “How naive does a blogger living in the Australian armaments capital of Adelaide”

    Peter, you may have some worthwhile points buried in that rant, but given the insulting tone of your comment, I’m not going to bother to engage with you. Grow up and put aside your schoolboy level sneers if you want to engage people here in an intelligent discussion. Life’s too short to bother with pricks.

  16. The problem with politics is…politics. I think capitalism, especially the neo-liberal kind advocated by the US and British for the past 20 years or so, is particularly anti-people. I’d like to see at totally nationalized energy sector. SO WHAT? It’s not relevant to this discussion and left-baiting any of authors here hardly serves the *question* at hand, does it?

    Barry, you may of been distracted or I missed it, but we need (meaning me :) a good explanation of the differences between the IFR you and other advocate here, and the fast rector projects in Russia, India, etc. I would say India is the most advanced in *planning* their energy future based on FRs. Perhaps others can comments.

    Government. Without governments, warts, blemishes and bureaucracy, there will be no IFRs. There would be no anything technological. Only the gov’t can garner the funds and minds necessary to develop the IFR (and LFTR and most other nuclear for that matter). Get over it. The people are going to DEMAND heavy government involvement, or you get companies like Kerr McGee and other *totally* profit driven loons in the industry and nobody is going to tolerate that.


  17. dv82xl, thanks for that information. Do you know if the neutron irradiation issue has been given design consideration in the S-PRISM? If that’s a commercial prototype of the EBR-II design approach, one would hope so.

    Peter Lalor: “.. you and all other number-crunching techies” . What else would you like us to do with the numbers? Grow up.

  18. @John Rogers & John D Morgan – Life limiting radiation damage to components is a fundamental issue in all nuclear reactors, it comes with the territory.

    In the IFR and the S-PRISM maintaining a high transmutation rate with low inventory of actinides is the overall goal. This implies high fluxes. Thus the discharge burnup will be limited by criticality requirements and radiation damage effects. If the spectrum becomes “too hard”, then material damage limits become more severe; too soft and conversion doesn’t occur efficiently. These tradeoffs require detailed designs and strict operating envelopes in order to maximize costs and benefits.

    That doesn’t mean fast reactors are dead in the water, but it does mean that this is a basic part of the picture with these types of reactor, and should be address in any series of essays devoted to the subject

    The best I can suggest is a Google search on the subject is you want to familiarize yourselves with these matters.

  19. hi

    wonndnering if anyone can explain why South Korea has a 2028 timeline to demonstrate the technical and economic viability of operating burner reactors in conjunction with pyroprocessing? Why so long?

    Another question – as i understand it, Plan Blees involves a major expansion of conventional reprocessing as well as the construction of an initial fleet of breeders (and/or Gen 3?). If so, is the argument that WMD proliferation risks increase in the short-term, if only marginally (reprocessing + breeders) but decrease in the medium- to long-term (IFR burners)?

    Lastly, here are a couple of Blees’ quotes that Peter Lalor is referring to:
    * In his book ‘Prescription for the Planet’, Blees argues that: “Privatized nuclear power should be outlawed worldwide, with complete international control of not only the entire fuel cycle but also the engineering, construction, and operation of all nuclear power plants. Only in this way will safety and proliferation issues be satisfactorily dealt with. Anything short of that opens up a Pandora’s box of inevitable problems.”
    * Blees argues for a “nonprofit global energy consortium” to control nuclear power: “The shadowy threat of nuclear proliferation and terrorism virtually requires us to either internationalize or ban nuclear power.”

  20. @Jim Green – No one has ever shown just how enrichment and reprocessing in and of themselves increases the risk of proliferation per se. It is one of those ideas that has been repeated so many times that it is assumed to be true, but it is just not so. The notion that the potential for proliferation will increase if spent fuel is reprocessed to close the fuel cycle and allow a rational waste disposal policy is simply incorrect.

    First, producing enriched uranium or plutonium is a very costly process, as a result the product has considerable value to those that have made it. Consequently they are always treated as precious metals and accorded the security of such. In fact there has been no credible loss of fissionable material ever, even during the worst day of the collapse of the USSR, when one would assume stockpiles were at there most vulnerable.

    Second, the threat from reactor-grade plutonium has been greatly exaggerated by the argument that what is theoretically possible to do with this grade of Pu.

    Even if the question of suppling weapon-grade fissile material is removed, (which is the crux of the ‘dual use’ argument that these facilities help in the construction of a bomb) it still requires a sizable technological infrastructure and the expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars to make a device. The costs of a more ambitious program aimed at producing a militarily significant number of weapons can easily run into the billions of dollars, and the idea that such a project could be carried out by surreptitiously from stolen material by a subnational group belongs in pulp novels, not in any rational discussion of the issue.

  21. As a USAF intel analyst, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve laughed/despaired at the use of nuclear proliferation as a rallying call to abandon what is cleary a superior form of power generation. When I say clearly, I’m referring strictly to the uilization of a immensely concentrated fuel. Logistically, this is the key factor in determining what fuel can best serve any purpose. When you closely analyze the arguments for and against renewables, the backbreaker always comes down to the impractical logistical requirements of concentrating a dilute (although immense) power source (the sun). However I digress, the point I’m trying to make relates to the ridiculous notion of how our world is awash in nuclear proliferation probllems stemming from commercial power reactors– false.
    I can tell you this quite certainly, the threat of nuclear bombs comes from bombs already CONSTRUCTED, somehow ending up in the wrong hands. It DOES NOT stem from a group of insurgents pulling off the greatest plutonium heist in history (a plan that Chuck Norris himself would be loathe to attempt) and subsequently embarking on a Don Quixote quest to build a WMD. In fact, Al-Qaeda itself has ordered it’s disciples to abandoned any and all nuclear related operations (aside from purchasing a completed bomb) due to it’s violation of the “soft target” protocol and it’s lack of direct mass casualty causation. A dirty bomb may invoke fear but the eventual cancer deaths -that would occur years later- does virtually nothing to further their needs now. In fact, they fear an exagerrated response from western powers to just such an attack. This is precisely the reason they abandoned any attack on a nuclear power plant when planning 9/11. They fear OUR response to any attack that can be linked to the word nuclear… I guess that’s one thing we can thank the anties for!
    As has been mentioned numerious times on this site, the proliferation threat from nation states stems from uranium enrichment (Iran) or PU mined from reactors designed for just such a purpose (N. Korea); none of which has anything to do with a power plant. True, uranium enrichment is a necessary step for LWR’s, but any inspector with a day of training can tell an enrichment plant used for LWR’s apart from a plant used to build a bomb.
    I would think that after decades of re-processing and nuclear power (with no cities evaporating in the meantime) that people could easily see through these B.S. “what if” notions and see them for what they are- fear mongoring.
    If you want a what if scenario that might actually make a city evaporate, try lighting… nevermind I don’t want to give any lurkers any ideas. Suffice to say, it’s not weapons useless PU diverted from power reactors that’s keeping us intel guys up at night.

  22. Just a little input from my memory on the subject of neutron damage in EBR-II. I remember being told that had it continued in operation, distortion of the upper core support structure would have been first thing to limit its continued operation, and that would have been at about the 40 year mark of its operation; it was shut down at the 30 year mark.

    Now for a bit of speculation on the PRISM design in this regard: I imagine that its designers took into account other fast reactor experience with neutron damage. Also, I don’t remember anything like the neutron embrittlement considerations that come into play in LWRs, perhaps because liquid metal cooled reactors are not pressurized so that the brittle pressure vessel problem is not a consideration with them. For fast reactors it must be pretty much just a distortion problem, which might be manageable by replacement or rework of components given appropriate design features.

  23. > add ‘materials’ to your list

    One suggestion–look at the development of high temperature metals.

    The metallurgy is interesting because it’s required to handle the extremely high temperature of the latest super-supercritical coal plants.

    It would be _very_ interesting to take that same material, as it’s being developed for use in ultra-high-temperature coal plants, and test it for neutron embrittlement.

    Figure out how to make the material suitable for later use once in fission and eventually fusion reactors can be built that can operate at comparably high temperatures.

    Coal plants being built now are going to be more thermodynamically efficient — because they can run hotter — than fission plants. This pushes the metallurgy.

    (And will run even hotter, as materials allow, if plants ever get built that run on enriched air or pure oxygen instead of air (which would produce CO2 without nitrogen oxides, easier to sequester, if there ever is a way to sequester the stuff in volume)).

    Besides, we’ll need the advanced metallurgy for starships …

  24. “Figure out how to make the material suitable for later use once in fission and eventually fusion reactors can be built that can operate at comparably high temperatures.”

    I am a metallurgist, Hank and people in my field have been pulling their hair out by the handfuls for the last forty years looking for these materials. It is not a trivial problem. Neuron embrittlement, and neutron activation, and radiation creep all add to the difficulties, as ultimately does cost. Finding a balance between these and the other necessary properties is exceptionally difficult.

    I might add that this search is not helped by the slow disappearance of high-flux research reactors, or their conversion in to low power sources in the name of controlling proliferation.

  25. It should be possible to protect the reactor vessel from neutrons by some shield between the core and vessel wall. This would limit the damages to the core structure. They are small and easy to replace.

    This is what has been done here in Finland at Loviisa nuclear power plant and it’s two VVER-440 reactors. The outer fuel bundles in the core are replaced with “dummy”-elements to reduce the neutron radiation to the pressure vessel. The damages already occured was repaired by a heat treatment.

    But how about the MSR? Liquid fuel with some neutron radiation produced by spontanous fission all ower the system, also in the pressurised heat exhanger? No experiences about this yet?

  26. Not to single you out Kaj, but this is what I call Star Trek thinking.

    In that show, when ever there is a difficult technical problem Capt. Pickard turns to Jordi and Mr. Data and tells them in gruff tones to “make it so,” and two or three minutes later they have.

    In real life, when it comes to material science, solving problems is as hardscrabble as it gets. “It should be possible,” has been the epitath written over the grave of many projects, and more that a few careers. It is foolish to trivialize materials as an engineering issue, or assume that anything you might think obvious, hasn’t been considered.

  27. Star Trek is cool! I like it.

    I also like the old story of two monks who wondered how many teeth a horse has. A young novice heard that and suggested to find a horse and count the teeth. The munks get upset and told the novice, that the truth can only be found from old books.

    So maybe I was too logical too, when thinking that a solution witch has worked in two nuclear reaktors (Loviisa 1&2) could possibly work in other reactors, too.

    Or is the problem here, that this solution does actually not came from material science?

  28. “So maybe I was too logical too, when thinking that a solution witch has worked in two nuclear reaktors (Loviisa 1&2) could possibly work in other reactors, too”

    First you do understand that using these neutron absorbing fuel bundles was a kludge to ameliorate poor material performance in the pressure vessel walls. Neutron absorbing fuel rods also lower the fissile inventory of the core, making it less efficient, thus there is a performance trade off here.

    Second a set of sponges is not the engineering equivalent to a shield, as one assumes that they are replaced as they become less effective through neutron activation. They are then treated one again assumes as spent fuel waste.

    Lastly Western made reactor pressure vessels have very good lifespans even under high neutron fluxes, and they too have occasional heat-treatments to recondition them.

    The point being that there is not yet a good material that will reflect neutrons, tolerate high temperatures, and that can be integrated into the walls of a pressure vessel. But I can assure you it hasn’t been from lack of effort.

  29. Pingback: SNE 2060 – thermal reactor build rates, uranium use and cost « BraveNewClimate

  30. Read your webpage after I saw the picture today. I was on watch when we shutdown the EBR II reactor in 1994. It was an excellent design for a land based reactor. Sodium cooled, high temperature for super heated steam, reactor building right next to fuel reprocessing center. Seems like a long time ago now.

  31. Pingback: The IFR vs the LFTR: An Exchange of Emails « BraveNewClimate

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