IFR FaD context – the need for U.S. implementation of the IFR

This is a context statement for the IFR FaD series, written by Dr. George S. Stanford. You can download the printable PDF here.

George is a nuclear reactor physicist, part of the team that developed the Integral Fast Reactor. He is now retired from Argonne National Laboratory after a career of experimental work pertaining to power-reactor safety. He is the co-author of Nuclear Shadowboxing: Contemporary Threats from Cold War Weaponry. He is a founding member of the Science Council for Global Initiatives.

ON THE NEED FOR U.S. IMPLEMENTATION OF THE INTEGRAL FAST REACTOR

The IFR ties into a very big picture — international stability, prevention of war, and avoiding “proliferation” (spread) of nuclear weapons.

– The need for energy is the basis of many wars, including the ones we are engaged in right now (Iraq and Afghanistan). If every nation had enough energy to give its people a decent standard of living, that reason for conflict would disappear.

– The only sustainable energy source that can provide the bulk of the energy needed is nuclear power.

– The current need is for more thermal reactors — the kind we now use.

– But for the longer term, to provide the growing amount of energy that will be needed to maintain civilization, the only proven way available today is with fast-reactor technology.

– The most promising fast-reactor type is the IFR — metal-fueled, sodium-cooled, with pyroprocessing to recycle its fuel.

– Nobody knows yet how much IFR plants would cost to build and operate. Without the commercial-scale demo of the IFR, along with rationalization of the licensing process, any claims about costs are simply hand-waving guesses.

* * * *

Background info on proliferation (of nuclear weapons). Please follow the reasoning carefully.

– Atomic bombs can be made with highly enriched uranium (90% U-235) or with good-quality plutonium (bomb designers want plutonium that is ~93% Pu-239).

– For fuel for an LWR, the uranium only has to be enriched to 3 or 4% U-235.

– To make a uranium bomb you don’t need a reactor — but you do need access to an enrichment facility or some other source of highly enriched uranium…

– Any kind of nuclear reactor can be used to make weapons-quality plutonium from uranium-238, but the uranium has to have been irradiated for only a very short period. In other words, nobody would try to make a plutonium weapon from ordinary spent fuel, because there are easier ways to get plutonium of much better quality.

– Plutonium for a weapon not only has to have good isotopic quality, it also has to be chemically uncontaminated. Thus the lightly irradiated fuel has to be processed to extract the plutonium in a chemically pure form. But mere possession of a reactor is not sufficient for a weapons capability — a facility using a chemical process called PUREX is also needed.

– Regardless of how many reactors a country has, it cannot have a weapons capability unless it has either the ability to enrich uranium or to do PUREX-type fuel reprocessing.

– Therefore, the spread of weapons capability will be strongly inhibited if the only enrichment and reprocessing facilities are in countries that already have a nuclear arsenal.

– But that can only happen if countries with reactors (and soon that will be most of the nations of the world) have absolutely ironclad guarantees that they can get the fuel they need even if they can’t make their own, regardless of how obnoxious their political actions might be.

– Such guarantees will have to be backed up by some sort of international arrangement, and that can only come to pass if there is effective leadership for the laborious international negotiations that will have to take place. (For a relevant discussion, see here)

– At present, the only nation that has a realistic potential to be such a leader is the United States.

– But a country cannot be such a leader in the political arena unless it is also in the technological forefront.

– The United States used to be the reactor-technology leader, but it abandoned that role in 1994 when it terminated the development of the IFR.

– Since then, other nations — China, India, Japan, South Korea, Russia, France — have proceeded to work on their own fast-reactor versions, which necessarily will involve instituting a fuel-processing capability.

– Thus the United States is being left behind, and is rapidly losing its ability to help assure that the global evolution of the technology of nuclear energy proceeds in a safe and orderly manner.

– But maybe it’s not too late yet. After all, the IFR is the fast-reactor technology with the post promise (for a variety of reasons), and is ready for a commercial-scale demonstration to settle some uncertainties about how to scale up the pyroprocess as needed, to establish better limits on the expected cost of production units, and to develop an appropriate, expeditious licensing process.

– Such a demo will require federal seed money. It’s time to get moving.

* * * *

Update: Eight (8) reasons for pursuing IFRs now

It seems clear that uranium supply is not a near-term problem, even for thermal reactors. But there are other reasons to forge ahead with IFRs. Here are some:

1. Eighty years of waste from 1000 (1-GWe) reactors would leave enough used fuel for 10 or 20 Yucca Mountains.

2. The environmental effects of accelerated uranium mining will impinge increasingly on the public’s consciousness. Resistance to uranium mining is already growing.

3. The accumulating plutonium inventory will, rightly or wrongly, be seen as an ever-increasing proliferation risk.

4. The multiplying need for uranium enrichment means the spread of centrifuge technology and loss of international control of that technology, with serious proliferation implications.

5. Since China, India, Russia, et al. are forging ahead with their fast-reactor programs, technological leadership will continue to move in that direction.

6. The concomitant spread of fuel-processing technology will mean loss of international control of that technology, with further serious proliferation implications.

7. No nation can make nuclear weapons without either enrichment or reprocessing facilities, regardless of how many reactors it has. The loss of U.S. technological leadership will mean the loss of ability to bring order to the global development and deployment of nuclear technology, with the consequent uninhibited spread of proliferation potential.

8. The institutional knowledge of the U.S.-developed IFR technology is rapidly dying off, accelerating the North American descent to second-class technological status.

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35 Comments

  1. Pingback: IFR FaD context – the need for U.S. implementation of the IFR « BraveNewClimate « Eclipse Now

  2. Has there been any consideration given to thorium reactors as well as IFR?I believe that a successful trial reactor was built in the USA some years ago but was shut down for various reasons including the need for weapons grade material.

  3. While his reasoning is logically sound to a point, it is much too little, too late. The U.S. has had the ability to undertake their Article IV responsibilities for some time, and for short-sighted domestic reasons did not. Now there are those that assume that the U.S. can step in to a very changed international nuclear energy landscape, and dictate terms as it did in the past when it controlled this technology.

    For example, many in the developing world are suspicious that the US wants to shut down the nuclear club at the very moment when new nations on the block are on the brink of joining it. In a world where the United States accounts for one-half of all military spending worldwide and where even a small cache of nuclear weapons offers an insurance policy against U.S. military attack, some wonder whether those calling for a new nuclear regime aren’t executing a change in tactics in a continued pursuit of U.S. military dominance rather than, as they claim, a visionary campaign for a better world.

    It is also the height of arrogance to assume that the emerging economic powerhouses in the East are in any mood to hand over control of their energy policy to Americas setting star. The hubris the assumption that the U.S. is the only nation that can provide leadership in international nuclear fuel negotiations is almost palpable, given they do not control the supply of uranium, nor are they the major provider of enrichment services.

    Nor are they planning to abandon nuclear weapons themselves. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has already made his opinion clear. “To be blunt, there is absolutely no way we can maintain a credible deterrent and reduce the number of weapons in our stockpile without either resorting to testing our stockpile or pursuing a modernization program,” he has said. If this approach becomes policy and the United States ratifies the CTBT — but ties that to new investments in capabilities for maintaining the capacity to design, develop, and produce new warheads or to modify existing warhead types — then it is fair to question their commitment to getting rid of nuclear weapons.

    It also poses a profound question about the value of the test ban treaty and what that means to current nuclear weapon states.

    This type of reasoning may find an audience in Washington, and appeal to those Americans that don’t see the writing on the wall, but it will not get much play in other world capitals. The US risks losing what influence in the matter they have left, if they pursue some high-handed plan assuming all others will follow.

  4. – At present, the only nation that has a realistic potential to be such a leader is the United States.

    This argument will play well to a US audience. It is not credible to a non-US voting base (or a decision-making class put in place by means other than voting).

  5. The set of propositions that are the lead in to this article are by no means as clear cut and as obvious as the author would like us to believe.
    The first proposition is essentially the conclusion that one can come to if the subsequent propositions are true.
    The second proposition asserts that the need for energy is the basis for many wars. That may well be true but it does not hold for all wars. The war in Afghanastan, the Dafur conflict, the Balkan Conflict, the ongoing struggle in the Middle East are but three that come to mind where energy played little or no role.
    The third proposition that nuclear is the only source that can provide the energy that is needed is contentious – it makes assumptions about the sort of futures that people would want and the sort of technology needed to deliver that future – it seems to assume that the most efficient form of electrical energy comes in the form of AC and not DC – we may need to revive the debate between westignhouse (AC) and Edison (DC) of the 1920ties to see which direction we ought to be heading.
    The recoomendation is for more thermal reactors bringing the IFR on stream sometime in the future.
    In the body of the argument we find the idea that provided countries have a guaranteed supply of the fuel needed to run their reactors they will not be prepared to fo the extra yard and develop the capacity to make nuclear weapons.
    However, that concept suggests that the author does not understand the basis of energy wars – countries do not like to be in a position where they are dependent on the goodwill of a third party; any country that switches to nuclear will in effect become virtually a vassal state to those countries with the fuel they need. The so called “golden strait jacket” of globalization (where less rich countries essentially have to follow the lead of the richer nations in order to maintain some sort reasonable standard of living) has created significant international tensions – cfountries will be most reluctant to sign up to a deal which tightens that straitjacket even further by making their economic future dependent on those nations that have made it difficult to manage their economies. (the countries with access to the fuel are also the countries that tend to be the winners in international globalization and basically structure the rules to serve their interests – see Stiglitiz Globalization adn its discontents)
    The US is suggested as the one nation that can give the global leadership to bring about an international agreement to put the approriate safeguards and guarantees in place.
    The quality of US leadership on other issues does not inspire one with confidence – for a start US domestic politics tends to ‘trump’ international considerations meaning that a good international policy that may disadvantage a politically influential domestic player will be abandoned.
    Then there is the clear risk that we have already unleashed an IFR race – the US has to be part of it because it is being left behind.
    The human race has a poor track record when it comes to international agreements and an even poorer track record when it comes to using advances in technology only for peaceful means.
    We are being invited to take a big gamble that somehow those given the power to manage this technology can be trusted not to abuse our trust; on any sensible risk assessment the price of our turst being abused or misplaced is simply too great.

  6. —-
    But that can only happen if countries with reactors (and soon that will be most of the nations of the world) have absolutely ironclad guarantees that they can get the fuel they need even if they can’t make their own, regardless of how obnoxious their political actions might be.
    —-

    I’d say this completely rules out US. The politics in US and extremely rigid ideological posturing we engage in makes us unreliable. France or China probably have much better credibility.

  7. I actually have sympathy for IFR advocates, after yesterday listening to Frank von Hippel, Mycle Schneider, Thomas B. Cochran, and M.V. Ramana talk about how evil the LMFBR is. They all sounded so reasonable, Not one foamed at the mouth, although von Hippel had silly things to say about how anyone could make nuclear weapons out of RGP.

    The anti-fast reactor crowd is not going to buy into the IFR even as a burner, and they represent big trouble for the IFR crowd. http://www.ipfmlibrary.org/rr08.pdf

    It would be good politics for the IFR crowd try to make allies of the LFTR supporters. For example, you could look at how the Indians are planning to use Fast Reactors to breed thorium, and come up with the original suggestion that IFRs be used to produce U-233 for LFTRs, so that LFTRs could skip using RGP in their start up charges. You could point out that GE-Hitatchi is thinking about putting thorium into the core of the S Prism, or that one of the proposed fuel reprocessing technologies for the IFR involves the use of liquid Fluoride salts. But George Stanford and Y.I. Chang are stubborn. They don’t even want to acknowledge that LFTRs can breed. They will come down from Mount Olympus to set us ignorant mortal LFTR backers straight , but i don’t think they want to associate with us, and I think they discount us and our message. This is too bad, because the IFR needs our support more than we need their support.

  8. Charles is referring to a discussion forum timed to coincide with the release of:

    Fast Breeder Reactor Programs: History and Status

    Thomas B. Cochran, Harold A. Feiveson, Walt Patterson, Gennadi Pshakin, M.V. Ramana, Mycle Schneider, Tatsujiro Suzuki, Frank von Hippel
    http://www.ipfmlibrary.org/rr08.pdf

    It’s a real piece of work. I love von Hippel’s conclusion in his first chapter:

    The breeder reactor dream is not dead but it has receded far into the future. In the 1970s, breeder advocates were predicting that the world would have thousands of breeder reactors operating by now. Today, they are predicting commercialization by approximately 2050. In the meantime, the world has to deal with the legacy of the dream; approximately 250 tons of separated weapon-usable plutonium and ongoing — although, in some cases struggling — reprocessing programs in France, India, Japan, Russia and the United Kingdom.

    I think the technical term for this is “drawing a long bow and then calling it a rifle”. How is 250t of WGP a legacy of the fast reactor ‘dream’?

    I should say that despite some dubious statements and conclusions, the report has many good parts. The Soviet chapter is particularly interesting, and if one wants to know the history of fast reactors in France and India, those chapters are interesting too (this is not a particularly technical document and can be speed-read with effect).

    Interestingly, very little is said about EBR-II, other than a bland history on pg 103-104 and no mention of metal-fuel technology nor the 1986 safety demonstrations. This is the key to critiquing this report – it’s not really what they say, it’s what they DON’T say that makes it a problematical (though still interesting) document. It’s a half-bite of the fast reactor cherry.

    The biggest flaw is the regular, oblique reference to proliferation concerns, as typified by the concluding paragraph of the last chapter on the US:

    Conclusion
    Although there are safety issues generic to liquid metal fast reactors, it does not appear that they were the predominant reasons for the demise of the breeder program in the United States. More important were proliferation concerns and a growing conviction that breeder reactors would not be needed or economically competitive with light-water reactors for decades, if ever.

    Under GNEP, the DOE expressed renewed interest in fast reactors, initially as burner reactors to fission the actinides in the spent fuel of the light-water reactors. So far, the new designs are mostly paper studies, and the prospect of a strong effort to develop the burner reactors is at best uncertain. The Obama Administration has terminated the GNEP Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement and efforts by DOE to move to near-term commercialization of fast reactors and the closed fuel cycle for transmutation of waste. As this report went to press, it was debating whether to even continue R&D on fast-neutron reactors. The economic and non-proliferation arguments against such reactors remain strong.

    I wonder who their target audience is? Whoever it may be, it’s actually a great document to take into a briefing, and then pick apart, as one proceeds to sell the concept of LMFBRs to potential customers. I’m thinking the Russians, Chinese, Indians and South Koreans have already been there, done that, however…

  9. Barry the target audience is the Obama Administration, which I believe is already leaning against FBRs. The report authors must know that they are not going to influence the decisions about FBRs in Russia, India, China, Japan or South Korea, and indeed the report is financed by an American Foundation.

  10. John Tons:

    “.. on any sensible risk assessment the price of our trust being abused or misplaced is simply too great.”

    The operative word here is “sensible”. The position you outline seems a reasonable one, on a business as usual basis. But we don’t have business as usual, not any more. Where in your response are the consequences of climate change? Where is the immediate imperative to decarbonize our energy system? Where are the energy crunch consequences of peak and declining fossil fuels? I just don’t see how you can talk about a “sensible” risk assessment that excludes these considerations.

    So lets briefly mention those risks. They might include: loss of the Arctic surface ecosystem, loss of the Arctic marine ecosystem supported by the sea ice, loss of equivalent Antarctic ecosystems, loss of the food chain base those ecosystems provide the oceans, and also the land, loss of the coral reefs, ocean acidification leading to loss of carbonate mineral based single celled organisms at the base of the marine food chains, loss of molluscs and crustacea also due to ocean acidification, further loss of marine life due to eutrophication of the oceans as oxygen solubility drops as the oceans warm, loss of the tropical rainforests due to impacts on the hydrological cycle, loss of the Amazon, loss of the glaciers that supply rivers, loss of the river and estuarine ecosystems, loss of montane and alpine ecosystem in particular due to vertically stratified microclimates, desertification of the worlds food bowls again due to changes in the hydrological cycle, loss of the soil from those places as it dries and blows, sea level rise drowning the worlds great wetlands and the worlds great cities, and vast amounts of coastal infrastructure, extended disease range and pest range, loss of the tropics to human habitation, loss of fresh water, et. etc. etc.

    I could go on, but you get my point. And I’ve barely mentioned the human consequences of climate change. And I haven’t mentioned at all the consequences of peak oil and energy poverty – I’ll leave that to you to fill in.

    Risk assessment. How do we assess the risk of this? Well, its already happening. Its not a risk, its a given. We have already progressed measurably down this path, to the present date. Due to the long life of co2 in the atmosphere we’re already committed to more warming in the pipeline, so we’ve further to go down this vale of tears. Thats also a given. We only need to start talking probabilistically at the extreme end of the risk scale. Like, whats the risk of four degrees C of warming? Six? Whats the risk of hitting the really big tipping points, like permafrost methane release, or ocean clathrate release? Whats the risk, in those cases, of the planet simply becoming uninhabitable?

    Well?

    As I said, much of this is already locked in. In contrast, the risks you describe are potentialities. Not to be discounted, but subjected to, as you say, a “sensible” risk assessment. Your concerns are quite generalized in nature, and rather vague on the specific risks and consequences. Perhaps it would help if you could outline, in specific detail, a particular scenario that embodies the consequences you see as risks.

    Then we can consider how those risks compare to those of choosing a path without nuclear power, which is a commitment to putting all accessible fossil carbon into the atmosphere and continuing along the path of the systemic deconstruction of the biosphere of the planet.

    Honestly, I don’t see how any sensible risk assessment could lead us to anything other than an immediate large scale roll out of nuclear power, as fast as we can go.

  11. John Tons wrote:

    The third proposition that nuclear is the only source that can provide the energy that is needed is contentious – it makes assumptions about the sort of futures that people would want and the sort of technology needed to deliver that future – it seems to assume that the most efficient form of electrical energy comes in the form of AC and not DC – we may need to revive the debate between westignhouse (AC) and Edison (DC) of the 1920ties to see which direction we ought to be heading.

    Several things here. First, I don’t think anyone thinks that nuclear can or will be the only source of energy. However, unless we want commit suicide on a vast scale, and then have the few survivors return to the life-style of the 19th century, we will need vast amounts of energy. This can be provided most reliably and economically by nuclear. Second, AC and DC are only methods of delivering energy, not energy sources themselves. DC is being used right now to deliver large amounts of electrical energy over long distances, though the conversion between AC and DC at both ends is costly. Note that even if the grid system were totally DC, these transmission systems would still be costly because the DC would need to be converted to AC to transform the voltage down to user levels, before being converted back to DC.

    John Tons also wrote:

    Then there is the clear risk that we have already unleashed an IFR race – the US has to be part of it because it is being left behind.
    The human race has a poor track record when it comes to international agreements and an even poorer track record when it comes to using advances in technology only for peaceful means.

    The IFR is one of the poorest choices for a reactor if the intent is make material for effective weapons. If one wants to make weapons, why not do it in some easier manner?

  12. @Morgan:

    http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn16058-prophesy-of-economic-collapse-coming-true.html

    it is not clear how going nuclear by itself addresses what Graham Turner of CSIRO wrote in 2008 in his analysis of Limits to Growth (1972) more than 30 years on. Where do food production, resource eg minerals consumption fit in, in your view?

    Graham Turner: A Comparison of The Limits to Growth with Thirty Years of Reality. In: Socio-Economics and the Environment in Discussion (SEED). CSIRO Working Paper Series Number 2008-09, v. Juni 2008, ISSN 1834-5638

    I have the impression so far that nukies believe that growth as such has no limits, especially as NPP rollouts in poor countries are supposed to diminish energy wars and cut population increases, because the poor will have cheap and plentiful (NPP-desal) water and energy. So they will cut back birth rates.

    That is, given what Herman Daly (ex World Bank) has written (or Clive Hamilton for that matter) , what is the connection between NPP rollouts and ecological economics? or do you dismiss the latter?

  13. I’m not up on all the various classifications of nuclear reactors, so I thought some of you might be able to clear this up for me:

    Bill Gates just gave a talk at TED (see here), and among other things he mentioned he was investing in Intellectual Ventures’ Terra Power, which is working on Traveling-Wave Reactors. Is this the same design Barry is usually promoting? If not, anyone want to comment on the relative advantages or disadvantages of this versus other designs for running on unrefined/depleted uranium/nuclear waste? (Or point me to where you’ve already had that discussion?) (Obviously there is the separate question of Thorium powered plants, but that’s not what I’m asking here.)

  14. Peter, nuclear power is not a panacea. It doesn’t by itself solve all problems. No one is arguing that. We face multiple sustainability problems. Two of the biggest are global warming / ocean acidification and the end of oil. Nuclear power right now is the most effective response we have available to those. And, as I said above, the truly dire consequences of these processes, which are already in train, have to be a part of a sensible risk assessment around our energy choices.

    Speaking of which, you were going to outline your preferred approach to energy in society, which addresses the co2 emission problem. Hows that coming?

  15. Peter Lalor conceivably abundant clean energy could overcome problems like Peak Phosphorus but aesthetics might come into it. When there is no rock phosphate we might have to use extra energy to farm with human waste, liquid and solid. Perhaps that’s not the kind of world people want.

    The bigger problem seems to be replacing the carbon based energy we use now before it either depletes for practical purposes or buggers the climate. Right now Joe Public doesn’t seem to think either will happen within his lifetime. When the problem does become apparent to everybody it may be too hard to fix. That’s the job of government, to think ahead. If only.

  16. This is in response John Morgan’s post (at least i think it is yours – if not my apologies to the author.) You argue that a sensible risk assessment would encourage us to go nuclear precisely because of the dramatic risks posed by climate change.
    We are agreed that climate change poses a big risk and that we need to address that risk. The problem with much of the discussion about the causes of climate change is that it begins and ends with CO2 (or more precisely with the greenhouse gasses we pump into the atmosphere.)
    We also need to consider the rate of natural resource depletion and the problem of world poverty. Once you start factoring these issues in the problem changes profoundly.
    My concern is with solutions that maintain a centralised distribution of energy for these essentially disenfranchise the majority of people from taking control of the way energy is managed.
    Secondly I agree with you that the problem is pressing and urgent. We need to implement solutions now – we know that the technology exists for a shift to renewables – if, having made that shift it is still doubtful that we can achieve a good quality of life for everyone on the planet without investing in nuclear then that can be revisited but if one wants to act with urgency then the focus should be on a cocktail of renewables.

  17. @ John Newlands
    Any government planning ahead? Call me an old cynic , but it ain’t gonna happen. Perhaps to the next election .
    Then again, the Chinese are probably disproving me as we speak. Though I am not sure if they even have elections. Bit of a catch 22 if you ask me :)

  18. @John Tons:
    My concern is with solutions that maintain a centralised distribution of energy for these essentially disenfranchise the majority of people from taking control of the way energy is managed.

    Disenfranchised? My main requirement for a power source, all other things being equal, is that it works when I plug something into the power point and switch it on. I dont see how not having to pay for the generator, not having to operate it, and not having to handle the first line of emergency response (if for instance my roof-mounted solar panels catch fire) diminishes my democratic rights. The division of labor is a well accepted principal for improving the management of things. I dont see why I should be concerned about not running my own power station, any more than I should be about not refining my own aluminium.

  19. The idea of being disenfranchised by not having access to your own power is, I agree, an unusual take on the problem. I began to develop this idea a couple of a years ago when Russia was able to dictate terms to Europe simply by the threat of turning off the gas supply. It occurred to me that if we have created a lifestyle where we depend on a reliable source of energy for our survival then the more centralised that control is the more effectively we are disempowered or disenfranchised.
    There are things we can do without – we do not need to produce our own steel or aluminium but we do need to have guaranteed and reliable access to our own energy, our own water supplies and to our own sources of food. In Australia we are lucky we can achieve all three of these and use the centralised resources as an emergency back up.
    However, if we choose to become dependent on central sources of these essentials then we have lost our freedom to say no – because saying no means that we risk losing the means to live.
    This was first vividly described by EM Forster in his short story The Machine Stops (you can read it on line for free here http://manybooks.net/titles/forstereother07machine_stops.html
    You may well be sceptical that this all so bad you have to ask yourself whether or not you would rather be in a situation where you have limited capacity to determine the quality of your life or whether you want to stay in control of your future.

  20. @John Tons:

    I began to develop this idea a couple of a years ago when Russia was able to dictate terms to Europe simply by the threat of turning off the gas supply.

    There’s a bit of a ‘bait and switch’ there. Nuclear power would help European countries in that situation, as the fuel requirements are minimal, and can be stockpiled many years in advance. That’s hardly the same situation as trying to get the bulk of the population to live off-grid.

    In a modern society, people are interdependent. In fact, people have been interdependent for as long as there have been people, and the more advanced the society, the further this principle is pushed. Trying to set everyone up as semi-independant subsistance farmers each running their own little solar farm or windmill is a step in the wrong direction. If you wnt reliable, cheap, clean power, nuclear is the way to go. In fact with mini-reactors (should they become available), locally produced power will be far more likely to occur than under just about any other scenario.

  21. John Tons, it looks like we are substantially in agreement, certainly on some important points.

    The interesting question then is, why do we arrive at different conclusions? I think I understand from your last response where the main points of disconnect are:

    1. that reducing human produced co2 is not the whole response to climate change
    2. that there are other problems, such as natural resource depletion and poverty
    3. that distributed energy generation is to be preferred to centralized systems
    4. that renewable energy can probably obviate the need to develop nuclear power

    So let me put my position on these points, to show why I hold my position.

    1. Human produced co2 from burning fossil fuels is the primary greenhouse gas involved in climate forcing. If we don’t figure how to eliminate this, we’re hosed. There are other human produced greenhouse gasses involved, principally co2 from clearing forests by burning, methane from bovines (and that has recently been discussed here in these posts), and nitrous oxide. These are lesser contributions. Getting off fossil fuels is the main game. Its a necessary condition for dealing with climate change.

    2. Yes, there are other problems. Nuclear power won’t cure TB. But its fallacious to suggest that this means we shouldn’t deploy nuclear power to solve the problems that it can solve. And depending on which natural resources you have in mind, nuclear power can make a difference. Water, for instance. Nuclear desalination is an obvious choice for major city water supplies.

    3. I understand the appeal of this idea. Its a nice idea that we should all be independent producers. I have my own vege patch. I make my own camembert and brie and breads and jams. I trade them for eggs from a friend who has chooks. And I am under absolutely no illusions that I could feed my family this way, living in the city. And nor could the other 4 million people who live here. Its the same with energy. There might be a few people can live off grid. But only a trivial fraction of people in a modern society would be able to sustain themselves from local renewables. From the point of view of avoiding climate change, these people don’t matter.

    And its a bit of a furphy that decentralized power generation enfranchises local users. Wind and solar projects on a scale that means anything are huge, and hugely expensive, are owned by the developers, not the people in the construction zone, and those people are most definitely disenfranchised when it comes to decisions about the developments.

    4. The short answer here is, no, renewable energy cannot provide power in the quantity and quality necessary to displace significant carbon emissions. I don’t propose to argue that here – thats a long, long discussion. The main reasons are that renewables’ intermittency requires massive capacity overbuilds and huge storage capacity and significant fossil fuel backup and hugely expensive transmission system buildouts and installations on the scale of countries because of their dilute energy fluxes and a huge amount of mining to supply the concrete and steel and rare earth metals such that the EROEI barely breaks even, etc. These points have been argued at length here – have a read of the articles listed under the ‘Renewable Limits’, and especially the discussions in the comments.

    I hope that elaborates my thinking on these points. Again, in terms of risk assessments, the risks associated with nuclear power pale in comparison to the risks of not using it to pursue a carbon reduction program for our stationary energy supply.

  22. I’d argue that feed-in tariffs on residential PV are a tax on the poor. Few people with PV could be described as battlers yet poor people’s taxes help subsidise their bling bling roof panels. More likely it’s the political elite diverting funds to their peer group. I heard on TV that Australia now has 200,000 PV generating roof tops, I guess average 1 kw or 200 Mw nameplate.

    Maybe it slightly offsets air conditioning demand in summer, preferably cloudless. The roof generates a smidgin of electricity while the homeowner is in the air conditioned office or shopping mall. If that cost $10 a watt including subsidy then dividing by .16 capacity factor gives about $60 per effective watt. It gives the elites a wonderful warm and fuzzy feeling seeing all those solar panels on their mates homes in their leafy suburbs. Shame it doesn’t smelt aluminium or help the pensioner suffering heat stroke.

  23. There certainly shouldn’t be any government handouts or inflated feed-in tarrifs for residential PV.

    It’s a huge amount of money squandered for negligible energy gains – it’s just a vote buying exercise.

    Those PV installations represent what is probably the most expensive means of energy generation in existence.

  24. As it happens, I attended a public meeting held by the ACT government to get community feedback on the proposal to extend the feed-in tariff for PV cells (currently at 50c/kW.h) to systems above 30kW rated power. Speaking on behalf of Nucleus 92, I stated that we were against the extension of the tariff, and in favour of abolishing the tariff altogether.

    There were a couple of dolar guys there, one who made a living installing them, and another who made a living teaching people at tech how to install them. They did not appreciate my comments. One tried to claim that electricity from dolar panels was cheap, and could be purchased at a rate of 15c/kW.h. We had a bit of a to-and-fro concerning solar costs, although unfortunately I wasn’t quick enough on my feet to point out that if that was really the case, they wouldn’t need a feed-in tariff in the first place (the moderator shut the debate down pretty quickly anyway to let other people have their say).

    I also read Peter Lang’s statement concerning feed-in tariffs, renewable mandates and the superiority of nuclear power to the meeting. The mention of ‘nuclear’ certainly produced some reactions. I had some interesting conversations afterwards.

  25. A couple of previous comments have mentioned Bill Gates’ TED presentation and the TerraPower “travelling-wave reactor”.

    If you’d like to get more technical background on this design and where it came from, I highly recommend reading “Completely Automated Nuclear Reactors for Long-Term Operation” by Teller, Ishikawa and Wood.

    http://www.osti.gov/bridge/purl.cover.jsp;jsessionid=5C0481385EBA59480F94ED7CC2170E88?purl=/231377-OSj0UO/webviewable/

  26. The TerraPower travelling-wave reactor, isn’t likely to get off the drawing board for several reasons. First the assumption that it will continue to work as designed for the full sixty years of its predicted life is optimistic a best. The models presume that the core will burn like a cigar, and do so evenly and predictably, and this to me is not a altogether justified assumption. Second it will be left with tens of tons of spent fuel in the core at the end of the units useful life, that will have to be left in situ, more or less forever. This will mean that siting the plant will have to take this permanence into account, limiting the very aspect of small reactors that make them attractive, which is that they can be set up anywhere, and just as quickly removed.

    So between questionable engineering, and poor overall utility, I can’t see this design having much market appeal. Bill Gates notwithstanding – keep in mind he was the one that picked DOS…

  27. “will have to be left in situ, more or less forever.”

    “More or less forever” sounds like the all-too-familiar anti-nuclear rubbish, and I wouldn’t have thought I’d hear it from you.

    You’re talking about finite lengths of time for the radioactivity to decay.

    How efficient is the TWR in burning up all the transuranics, etc., without any external fuel processing ever being performed? I don’t know, but it’s a good question.

    If Th-232 is the fuel, then there are less transuranics produced anyway.

    The majority of the radioactivity, due to fission products, will decay to background levels after ~300 years, so that’s really how long it has to be well and truly isolated from the environment for.

  28. @Luke – Yes it was a bit of hyperbole, but in terms of finding sites that will be suitable for an installation, ~200 years (my calculation) will still be a significant issue. And there will be a far mass of it in each reactor, and not in a form that will make for easy handling. But this is secondary to the issue of predicting the behavior of the slug for sixty plus years.

    There is very little in the way of information about plans to control this reactor. It is being sold as something you light up and let burn, the initial charge being constructed such that it reacts at a fixed pace, but that is very difficult to guarantee over such a long time frame.

    Therefore between limited places where it could go, or more importantly, would be welcome, and a marginal design, I don’t see this as much of a starter.

  29. Something else useful from George Stanford that I felt was worth reproducing. I’ve also added it to the post above:

    It seems clear that uranium supply is not a near-term problem, even for thermal reactors. But there are other reasons to forge ahead with IFRs. Here are some:

    1. Eighty years of waste from 1000 (1-GWe) reactors would leave enough used fuel for 10 or 20 Yucca Mountains.

    2. The environmental effects of accelerated uranium mining will impinge increasingly on the public’s consciousness. Resistance to uranium mining is already growing.

    3. The accumulating plutonium inventory will, rightly or wrongly, be seen as an ever-increasing proliferation risk,

    4. The multiplying need for uranium enrichment means the spread of centrifuge technology and loss of international control of that technology, with serious proliferation implications.

    5. Since China, India, Russia, et al. are forging ahead with their fast-reactor programs, technological leadership will continue to move in that direction.

    6. The concomitant spread of fuel-processing technology will mean loss of international control of that technology, with further serious proliferation implications.

    7. No nation can make nuclear weapons without either enrichment or reprocessing facilities, regardless of how many reactors it has. The loss of U.S. technological leadership will mean the loss of ability to bring order to the global development and deployment of nuclear technology, with the consequent uninhibited spread of proliferation potential.

    8. The institutional knowledge of the U.S.-developed IFR technology is rapidly dying off, accelerating the North American descent to second-class technological status.

  30. Barry, Point number 7 (The loss of U.S. technological leadership will mean the loss of ability to bring order to the global development and deployment of nuclear technology, with the consequent uninhibited spread of proliferation potential.) is excellent, and needs to be reduced to a sound bite. How about: “Can the United States cannot control nuclear technology others have mastered but it hasn’t?”

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