Steve Kirsch of SCGI is like the Energizer Bunny — he never runs out of energy in trying to get something meaningful done on the carbon emission mitigation problem. Below is his open letter to the U.S. President’s energy and climate policy staffer. His aim: to get Chuck Till an invitation to the White House!
Heather Zichal, Deputy Assistant to the President for Energy and Climate Change Policy, The White House
I am writing you today to join with Eric Loewen, President of the American Nuclear Society (ANS), in asking you to suggest to President Obama to meet directly with Dr. Charles Till.
I admit this is a very unusual request, but I hope you will take the time to read this admittedly very long letter and watch the 8 minute video referenced at the end. If you do that, I think that you will absolutely understand why I am making such an unusual request.
I will tell you the story of an amazing clean power technology that can use nuclear waste for fuel and emit no long-lived nuclear waste; that can supply clean power at low cost for our planet, 24×7, for millions of years without running out of fuel. I will tell you why this technology is our best bet to reduce the impact of global warming on our planet. And finally, I will tell you why nobody is doing anything about it and why this needs to be corrected.
If you act on this letter, you will save our country billions of dollars and allow us to become leaders in clean energy. If you delegate it downward, nothing will happen.
I have no vested interest in this; I am writing because I care about the future of our planet
First, since we met only briefly during the Obama campaign, let me provide a little background about myself. I am a high-tech entrepreneur and philanthropist based in Silicon Valley. I have received numerous awards for my philanthropy. For example, in 2003, I was honored to receive a National Caring Award presented by then Senator Clinton. The largest engineering auditorium at MIT is named in my honor. The first community college LEED platinum building in the nation is also named in my honor.
I am also active in Democratic politics. In the 2000 election, for example, I was the single largest political donor in the United States, donating over $10 million dollars to help Al Gore get elected. Unfortunately, we lost that one by one vote (on the Supreme Court).
I have no vested interest in nuclear power or anything else that is described below. I write only as someone who cares about our nation, the environment, and our planet. I am trying to do everything I can so my kids have a habitable world to live in. Nothing more.
Dr. James Hansen first made me aware of fast reactors in his letter to Obama in 2009
As an environmentalist, I have been a fan of Jim Hansen’s work for nearly two decades. Many consider Dr. Hansen to be the world’s leading expert on global warming. For example, Hansen was the first person to make Congress aware of global warming in his Senate testimony in 1988. Hansen is also Al Gore’s science advisor.
In 2009, Dr. Hansen wrote a letter to President Obama urging him to do just three things that are critical to stop global warming: 1) phase out coal plants, 2) impose a feebate on carbon emissions with a 100% rebate to consumers and 3) re-start fourth generation nuclear plants, which can use nuclear waste as fuel. Hansen’s letter to Obama is documented here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2009/jan/02/obama-climate-change-james-hansen
Upon reading Hansen’s recommendations, I was fascinated by the last recommendation. The fourth-generation power plants Hansen advocated sounded too good to be true. If what Hansen was saying was true, then why wasn’t our nation jumping on that technology? It made no sense to me.
Lack of knowledge, misinformation, and the complexity of nuclear technology have hampered efforts to get a fast reactor built in the US
I spent the next two years finding out the answer to that question. The short answer is three-fold: (1) most people know absolutely nothing about the amazing fourth generation nuclear power plant that we safely ran for 30 years in the US and (2) there is a lot of misleading information being spread by seemingly respectable people (some of whom are in the White House) who never worked on a fourth generation reactor that is totally false. It’s not that they are misleading people deliberately; it’s just that they were either listening to the wrong sources or they are jumping to erroneous conclusions. For example, the most popular misconception is that “reprocessing is a proliferation risk.” That statement fails to distinguish between available reprocessing techniques. It is absolutely true for the French method but it is absolutely not true for the technology described in this letter! The third reason is that the technology is complicated. Most people don’t know the difference between oxide fuel and metal fuel. Most people don’t know what a fast reactor is. Most people can’t tell you the difference between PUREX, UREX, and pyroprocessing. So people with an agenda can happily trot out arguments that support their beliefs and it all sounds perfectly credible. They simply leave out the critical details.
We don’t need more R&D. We already have a technology in hand to help us solve global warming and safely get rid of our nuclear waste at low cost. But we aren’t doing anything with it. That’s a serious mistake.
Today, our nation faces many serious challenges such as:
- How can we avert global warming?
- How can we dispose of our existing nuclear waste safely?
- How can we generate base-load carbon-free power at very low cost?
- How can we avoid creating any additional long-lived nuclear waste?
- How can we grow our economy and create jobs?
- How can we become the world leader in clean energy?
- How can we do all of the above while at the same time spending billions less than we are now?
The good news is that we already have a proven technology that can address all of these problems. It is a technology that has enjoyed over 30 years of bi-partisan Congressional and Presidential support. It is an advanced nuclear technology that was invented in 1951 by the legendary Walter Zinn and then refined and perfected over a 30 year period, from 1964 to 1994 by Dr. Charles Till who led a team of 1,200 people at the Argonne National Laboratory. Till’s reactor was known as the Integral Fast Reactor (IFR) because it both produced power and recycled its own waste back into the reactor. This is the technology that Hansen referenced in his letter to the President.
The IFR is a fourth-generation nuclear design that has several unique and valuable characteristics:
- It can use our existing nuclear waste (from power plants and weapons) as fuel; we have over 1,000 years of power available by just using today’s nuclear waste. Instead of trying to bury that “waste” in Yucca Mountain, we could be using it for fuel in fast reactors.
- It generates no long-lived nuclear waste.
- It is safer than today’s light water reactor (LWR) nuclear power plants. Unlike the Fukushima LWR reactors (a second generation nuclear technology invented 50 years ago), the IFR does NOT require electricity to shut down safely. The IFR shuts down passively if a mishap occurs; no operator intervention or active safety systems are required. They ran the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl scenarios on a live reactor and the reactor shut itself down safely, no operator intervention required, just as predicted. In addition, unlike with LWRs, the IFR runs at low pressure which adds to the safety profile.
- It reduces the risk of nuclear proliferation because: (1) it eliminates the need for enrichment facilities (which can be used for making nuclear bomb material), (2) the nuclear material that is used in the IFR is not suitable for making bombs and (2) because the nuclear material in the reactor and in the reprocessing hot cell is too “hot” to be stolen or used in a weapon.
- Experts at General Electric (GE) believe that the IFR has the potential to produce power for less than the price of coal. Dr. Loewen can confirm that if you have any doubts.
- GE already has an IFR design on the table that they would like to build as soon as possible. Dr. Loewen can confirm that as well.
- The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, in January 1994, issued a pre-application safety evaluation report in which they found no objections or impediments to licensing the IFR. You can see the NRC report in the 8 minute video.
- The design is proven. It produced electric power without mishap for 30 years before the project was abruptly cancelled.
The IFR’s ability to solve the nuclear waste problem should not be underestimated. As respected nuclear experts have pointed out, a practical solution to the nuclear waste problem is required if we are to revive nuclear power in the United States. The Blue Ribbon Commission (BRC) on America’s Nuclear Future basically concluded this: “continue doing the same thing we are doing today and keep doing R&D.” That was predictable because it was a consensus report; everyone had to agree. So nothing happened. And because there was no consensus from the BRC , there is less money for nuclear because there is no solution to the waste problem. It’s a downward death spiral.
Please pardon me for a second and allow me to rant about consensus reports. In my 30 year career as an entrepreneur, I’ve raised tens of millions of millions of dollars in investment capital from venture capitalists all over the world. I always ask them how they make investment decisions. They always tell me, “If we had to get all partners to agree on an investment, we’d never make any investments. If you can get two partners to champion your company, that is sufficient to drive an investment decision.” Therefore, if you want to get nothing done, ask for a consensus report. If you want to actually solve problems, you should listen to what the people most knowledgeable about the problem are saying.
Had President Obama asked the Commissioners on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) who have the most knowledge of fast reactors the same question that he tasked the BRC with, he would have gotten a completely different answer. They would have told President Obama that fast reactors and pyroprocessing are the way to go and we better get started immediately with something that we already know works because there is still a ten year time if we were to start the reactor building process today. Their advice leads to a viable solution that we know will work and it will make the US a leader in clean nuclear power. Following the BRC’s consensus advice will lead to decades of inaction. Totally predictable.
If we put a national focus on developing and cost reducing the IFR, we’d have a killer product and lead the world in being a clean energy leader
It would be great if we had a long-term strategy and vision for how we become energy independent and solve the global warming problem and help our economy at the same time. The IFR can play a key role in that vision. If we put a national focus on developing and commercializing the IFR technology we invented, we can create jobs, help our trade balance, mitigate global warming, become energy independent, show the world a safe way to get rid of nuclear waste, and become the leaders in clean power technology.
Nuclear power is the elephant in the room. Even though we haven’t built a new nuclear plant in 30 years, nuclear still supplies 70% of the clean energy in America today. That feat was largely accomplished in a single ten year period. Renewables have had 3 decades to “catch up” and they aren’t anywhere close. Nuclear’s continued dominance shows that nuclear power is indeed the elephant in the room when it comes to being able to install clean energy quickly and affordably.
The bad news is that President Clinton decided that this technology, which would have produced unlimited amounts of base-load carbon-free power for a price as low as anything else available today, was not needed and cancelled the project in 1994.
Cancelling the IFR was a big mistake. It’s still the world’s best fast nuclear technology according to an independent study by the Gen IV International Forum.
Many top scientists all over the world believe that President Clinton’s decision was a huge mistake. The Senate had voted to continue to fund it. The project had been supported by six US Presidents; Republicans and Democrats. In fact, the project’s biggest proponent was Republican President Richard Nixon who said in 1971, “Our best hope today for meeting the Nation’s growing demand for economical clean energy lies with the fast breeder reactor.”
Republican Senator Kempthorne said of the IFR cancellation:
Unfortunately, this program was canceled just 2 short years before the proof of concept. I assure my colleagues someday our Nation will regret and reverse this shortsighted decision. But complete or not, the concept and the work done to prove it remain genius and a great contribution to the world.
While I am not a big fan of Senator Kempthorne, I couldn’t agree more with what he said in this particular case.
The IFR remains the single best advanced nuclear power design ever invented. That fact was made clear when in 2002, over 240 leading nuclear scientists from all over the world (in a Gen IV International Forum sponsored study) independently evaluated all fourth-generation nuclear designs and ranked the IFR the #1 best overall advanced nuclear design.
The IFR was cancelled in 1994 without so much as a phone call to anyone who worked on the project. They didn’t call then. They haven’t called since. They simply pulled the plug and told people not to talk about the technology.
The US government invested over $5 billion dollars in the IFR. Fast reactor R&D is largest single technology investment DOE has ever made. According to a top DOE nuclear official (Ray Hunter, the former NE2 at DOE), the “IFR became the preferred path because of waste management, safety, and economics.” The reactor produced power for 30 years without incident. Despite that track record, before it was cancelled, nobody from the White House ever met with anyone who worked on the project to discuss whether it should be terminated or not. It was simply unilaterally terminated by the White House for political reasons. Technical experts were never consulted. To this day, no one from the White House has met with Dr. Till to understand the benefits of the project. The technical merits simply did not matter.
I urge you to recommend to President Obama that he meet personally with Dr. Charles Till so that the President can hear first hand why it is so critical for the health of our nation and our planet that this project, known as the Integral Fast Reactor (IFR), be restarted. Dr. Till headed the project at Argonne National Laboratory until his retirement in 1997. He is, without a doubt, the world’s leading expert on IFR technology.
Want to solve global warming? Easy. Just create a 24×7 clean power source that costs the same as coal. Prominent scientists believe that the IFR can achieve this.
Dr. Hansen has pointed out many times that it is imperative to eliminate all coal plants worldwide since otherwise, we will never win the battle against global warming. But we know from experience that treaties and agreements do not work. Here’s a quote from an article (“The Most Important Investment that We Aren’t Making to Mitigate the Climate Crisis”) that I wrote in December 2009 published in the Huffington Post:
If you want to get emissions reductions, you must make the alternatives for electric power generation cheaper than coal. It’s that simple. If you don’t do that, you lose.
The billions we invest in R&D now in building a clean and cheaper alternative to coal power will pay off in spades later. We have a really great option now — the IFR is on the verge of commercial readiness — and potential competitors such as the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR) are in the wings. But the US government isn’t investing in developing any of these breakthrough new base-load power generation technologies. Not a single one.
I found it really amazing that global leaders were promising billions, even hundreds of billions in Copenhagen for “fighting climate change” when they weren’t investing one cent in the nuclear technologies that can stop coal and replace it with something cheaper.
[ Note: 6 days ago, on September 22, 2011, DOE agreed to give $7.5M to MIT to do R&D on a molten-salt reactor. That’s good, but we should be building the technology we already have proven in 30 years of operational experience before we invest in unproven new technologies. ]
Dr. Loewen has personally looked at the costs for the building the IFR in detail and believes the IFR can generate power at a cost comparable to a coal plant. So it’s arguably our best shot at displacing coal plants. This is precisely why Dr. Hansen believes that the IFR should be a top priority if we want to save our planet.
It isn’t just nuclear experts that support the IFR
US Congressman John Garamendi (D-CA) is also a major IFR supporter. When he was Lt. Governor of California, Congressman Garamendi convened a panel of over a dozen our nation’s top scientists to discuss the IFR technology. As a result of that meeting, Garamendi became convinced that the IFR is critically important and he is currently trying very hard to get a bill passed in the House to restart it. Unfortunately, virtually everyone in Congress seems to have forgotten about this project even though in the 1970’s it was the President’s top energy priority. Nothing has changed since then. No other clean energy technology has been invented that is superior to the IFR for generating low-cost carbon-free base-load electric power.
Bill Gates also found exactly the same thing when he looked at how to solve the global warming problem. As he explained in a recent TED talk, renewables will never solve the climate crisis. The only viable technology is fourth-generation nuclear power and the best advanced nuclear technology is the IFR. That is why this is Gate’s only clean energy investment. Gates’ TerraPower Travelling Wave Reactor (TWR) is a variant of the IFR design. When Gates approached DOE to try to build his reactor in the US, he was told to build it outside of the US.
Nobel prize winner Hans Bethe (now deceased) was an enthusiastic supporter. Freeman Dyson called Bethe the “supreme problem solver of the 20th century. Chuck Till told me the following story of Bethe’s support for the IFR:
A tale from the past: A year or two before the events I’ll describe, Hans Bethe had been contacted by the Argonne Lab Director for his recommendation on who to seek to replace the existing head of Argonne’s reactor program.
Bethe told him the best choice was already there in the Lab, so it was in this way that I was put in charge. I had had quite a few sessions with him in the years leading up to it, as we were able to do a lot of calculations on the effects of reactor types on resources that he didn’t have the capability at his disposal to do himself.
So when I wanted to initiate the IFR thrust, the first outside person I went to was Bethe at Cornell. After a full day of briefing from all the specialists I had taken with me, he suggested a brief private meeting with me. He was direct. He said “All the pieces fit. I am prepared to write a letter stating this. Who do you want me to address it to? I think the President’s Science Advisor, don’t you?” I said the obvious – that his opinion would be given great weight, and would give instant respectability.
He went on, “I know him quite well. Who else?” I said I was sure that Senator McClure (who was chairman of Senate Energy and Resources at the time) would be relieved to hear from him. That the Senator would be inclined to support us, as we were fairly prominent in the economy of the state of Idaho, and for that reason I had easy access to him. But to know that Hans Bethe, a man renowned for his common sense in nuclear and all energy matters, supported such an effort would give him the Senator solid and quotable reason for his own support, not dismissible as parochial politics, that the Senator would want if he was to lead the congressional efforts. “Yes,” he said in that way he had, “I agree.”
I’ve always thought that the President’s Science Advisor’s intervention with DOE, to give us a start, was not the result of our meeting him, but rather it was because of the gravitas Hans Bethe provided with a one page letter.
How do we lead the world in clean energy if we put our most powerful clean energy technology on the shelf?!?
President Obama has stated that he wants the US to be a leader in clean energy. I do not see how we achieve that if we allow our most advanced clean energy technology to sit on the shelf collecting dust and we tell one of America’s most respected businessmen that he should build his clean energy technology in another country. We have an opportunity here to export energy technology to China instead of importing it. But due to Clinton’s decision, we are allowing the Russians to sell similar fast reactor technology to the Chinese. It should have been us.
Re-starting the IFR will allow us to cancel a $10 billion stupid expenditure. The IFR only costs $3B to build. We’d get more, pay less. On pure economics alone, it’s a no brainer.
Finally, even if you find none of the arguments above to be compelling, there is one more reason to restart the IFR project: it will save billions of dollars. Today, we are contracting with the French to build a MOX reprocessing plant in Savannah River. The cost of that project is $10 billion dollars. We are doing it to meet our treaty obligations with the Russians. Former top DOE nuclear managers agree this is a huge waste of money because we can build an IFR which can reprocess 10 times at much weapons waste per year for a fraction of that cost.
The Russians are laughing at our stupidity. They are going to be disposing of their weapons waste in fast reactors, just like we should be. The Russians are also exporting their fast reactors to the Chinese. Had the US not cancelled our fast reactor program, we would be the world leader in this technology because our technology remains better than any other fourth generation technology in the world.
If you delegate this to someone else, nothing will happen. Here’s why.
Delegating this letter downward from the White House to someone in DOE to evaluate will result in inaction and no follow up. I know this from past attempts that have been made. It just gets lost and there is no follow up. Every time. The guys at DOE want to do it, but they know that they will get completely stopped by OMB and OSTP. Both Carol Browner and Steven Chu asked former DOE nuclear management what to do about nuclear waste. They were told that using fast reactors and reprocessing was the way to go. But nothing happened. So Chu has given up trying. According to knowledgeable sources, the White House has told DOE in no uncertain terms, “do not build anything nuclear in the US.” It’s not clear who is making these decisions, but many people believe it is being driven by Steven Fetter in OSTP.
Dr. Till knows all of this. He knows that unless he personally meets with the President to tell the story of this amazing technology, nothing will happen.
I’ve discussed the IFR with Steve Fetter and he has his facts wrong. Fetter is basically a Frank von Hippel disciple: they have written at least 14 papers together! It was von Hippel who was largely responsible for killing the IFR under Clinton.
So von Hippel’s misguided thought process is driving White House policy today. That’s a big mistake. Professor von Hippel twists the facts to support his point of view and fails to bring up compelling counter arguments that he knows are true but would not support his position. He’s not being intellectually honest. I’ve experienced this myself, firsthand. For example, von Hippel often writes that fast reactors are unreliable. When I pointed out to him that there are several examples of reliable fast reactors, including the EBR-II which ran for decades without incident, he said, that these were the “exceptions that prove the rule.” I was floored by that. That’s crazy. It only proves that it is complicated to build a fast reactor, but that it can easily be done very reliably if you know what you are doing. There is nothing inherent to the technology that makes it “unreliable.” You just have to figure out the secrets. When von Hippel heard that Congressman Garamendi was supporting the IFR, he demanded a meeting with Garamendi to “set him straight.” But what happened was just the opposite: Garamendi pointed out to von Hippel that von Hippel’s “facts” were wrong. Von Hippel left that meeting with Garamendi with his tail between his legs muttering something about that being the first time he’s ever spoken with anyone in Congress who knew anything about fast nuclear reactors. In short, if you watch a debate between von Hippel and Garamendi (who is not a scientist), Garamendi easily wins on the facts. If you put von Hippel up against someone who knows the technology like Till, Till would crush von Hippel on both the facts and the arguments. But the Clinton White House never invited Till to debate the arguments with von Hippel. They simply trusted what von Hippel told them. Big mistake.
There are lots of problems with von Hippel’s arguments. For example, von Hippel ignores reality believing that if the USA doesn’t do something then it will not happen. That’s incredibly naieve and he’s been proven wrong. The USA invented a safe way to reprocess nuclear waste that isn’t a proliferation risk called pyroprocessing. The nuclear material is not suitable for making a bomb at any time in the process. But we never commercialized it because von Hippel convinced Clinton to cancel it. The French commercialized their reprocessing process (PUREX) which separates out pure plutonium and makes it trivial to make bomb material. So because countries need to reprocess, they pick the unsafe technology because they have no alternative. Similarly, because von Hippel had our fast reactor program cancelled, the Russians are the leaders in fast reactor technology. They’ve been using fast reactor technology for over 30 years to generate power commercially. But we know the Russians have a terrible nuclear safety record (e.g., Chernobyl). The fact is that the Chinese are buying fast reactors from the Russians because there is no US alternative. The problem with von Hippel’s arguments are that the genie is out of the bottle. We can either lead the world in showing how we can do this safely, or the world will choose the less safe alternatives. Today, von Hippel’s decisions have made the world less safe. I could go on and on about how bad von Hippel’s advice is, but this letter is already way too long.
MIT was wrong in their report about “The Future of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle”
The only other seemingly credible argument against building fast reactors now comes from MIT. The report’s recommendation that we have plenty of time to do R&D appears largely to be driven by one person, co-chair Ernie Moniz.
Four world-famous experts on nuclear power and/or climate change and one Congressman challenged Moniz to a debate on the MIT campus on his report. Moniz declined.
The report has several major problems. Here are a few of them.
- The MIT report is inconsistent. On the one hand it says, “To enable an expansion of nuclear power, it must overcome critical challenges in cost, waste disposal, and proliferation concerns while maintaining its currently excellent safety and reliability record.” We agree with that! But then it inexplicably says, “… there are many more viable fuel cycle options and that the optimum choice among them faces great uncertainty…. Greater clarity should emerge over the next few decades… A key message from our work is that we can and should preserve our options for fuel cycle choices by …[continuing doing what we are doing today] … and researching technology alternatives appropriate to a range of nuclear energy futures.” So even though we have a solution now that can be deployed so we can enable an expansion of nuclear power as soon as possible, MIT advises that we should spend a few more decades because we might find something better than the IFR. This is just about the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard coming from MIT. If you ask any scientist who knows anything about global warming, they will tell you we are decades late in deploying carbon-free power. Had we aggressively ramped fast nuclear closed-cycle reactors decades ago and promoted them worldwide, we wouldn’t be anywhere close to the disastrous situation we are in today. So we are decades too late in ramping up nuclear power, and Moniz wants us to spend decades doing more R&D to get a solution that might be lower cost than the IFR. That’s insane.
- The report looks at the market price of uranium, but the market price completely ignores the environmental impacts of uranium mining. Shouldn’t that be taken into account? It’s like the cost of gas is cheap because the market price doesn’t include the hidden costs: the impact on the environment and on our health.
- Do you really think that people are going to embrace expansion of uranium mining in the US? The MIT report is silent on that. So then we are back to being dependent on other countries for uranium. Wasn’t the whole point to be energy independent? The IFR provides that now. We wouldn’t have to do any uranium mining ever again. After a thousand years, when we’ve used all our existing nuclear waste as fuel, we can extract the additional fuel we need from seawater, making our seas less radioactive. We can do that for millions of years.
- The MIT report ignores what other countries are doing. Obama wants the US to be a leader in clean energy technology. You do that by building the most advanced nuclear designs and refining them. That’s the way you learn and improve. MIT would have us stuck on old LWR technology for a few decades. Does anyone seriously think that is the way to be the world leader? There is virtually no room for improvement in LWR technology. IFR technology is nearly 100 times more efficient, and it emits no long term nuclear waste. If you are a buyer of nuclear power in China, which nuclear reactor are you going to pick? The one that is 100 times more efficient and generates no waste? Or the one that is 100 times less efficient and generates waste that you better store for a million years? Wow. Now that’s a real tough question, isn’t it. Gotta ponder that one. I’m sure Apple Computer isn’t taking advice from Moniz. If they were, they’d still be building the Apple I. Ernie should get a clue. The reason Apple is a market leader is because they bring the latest technology to market before anyone else, not because they keep producing old stuff and spend decades doing R&D to see if they can come up with something better. Other countries are not hampered by MIT’s report. France and Japan recently entered into an agreement with the US DOE whereby we’re giving them the IFR technology for them to exploit. Even though we are stupid, they aren’t stupid. The Chinese are ordering inferior oxide fueled fast reactors from Russia. If the US were building metal-fueled fast reactors with pyroprocessing, it’s a good bet the Chinese would be buying from us instead of the Russians. But if we take Moniz’s advice to not build the world’s best advanced nuclear technology we already have, then there is no chance of that happening. By the time we get to market with a fast reactor, it will be all over. We’ll arrive to the market decades late. Another great American invention that we blew it on.
There will always be new technologies that people will propose. But the IFR is a bird in the hand and we really need a solution now we can depend on. If something comes along later that is better, that’s great. But if it doesn’t, we will have a viable technology. We can’t afford to get this wrong. We have already run out of time. Any new nuclear designs are decades away from deployment.
On September 22, 2011, DOE agreed to give MIT $7.5 millions of dollars on starting R&D on a fourth generation molten salt reactor design that have never been proven. While it might work, the very smart scientists at Oak Ridge National Laboratory spent well over a decade on this and were never able to make it work. So DOE is spending millions on an unproven design while spending nothing on the “sure thing” fourth generation reactor that we already know how to build and that ran flawlessly for 30 years. We are all scratching our heads on that one. It makes no sense. But the reason for this is clear: the mandate from the White House that nothing is to built means that DOE can only initiate research, and then cancel the project right before anything would be built. This is an excellent plan for demoralizing scientists and allowing other countries to lead the world in clean energy. Is that really what we want?? If so, then there are much less expensive ways to accomplish that.
At a minimum we should be investing in commercializing our “bird in the hand.” That way, if the new molten salt reactor experiments don’t work out, we’ll still have a viable solution to the nuclear waste problem. If we keep cancelling successful projects right before they are done, hoping for the next big thing, we will forever be in R&D mode and get nothing done. That’s where we are today with fourth generation nuclear.
I know this is an unusual request, but I also know that if the President is allowed to evaluate the facts first hand, I am absolutely convinced that he will come to the same conclusion as we all have.
I urge you to view an 8 minute video narrated by former CBS Morning News anchor Bill Kurtis that explains all of this in a way that anyone can understand. This video can be found at:
The video will amaze you.
If you would like an independent assessment of what I wrote above from a neutral , trustworthy, and knowledgeable expert, Bill Magwood would be an excellent choice. Magwood was head of nuclear at DOE under Clinton and Bush, and was the longest serving head of nuclear at DOE in US history. He served under both Clinton and Bush administrations. Magwood is familiar with the IFR, but the IFR was cancelled before he was appointed to head civilian nuclear at DOE. So Magwood has no vested interest in the IFR at all. More recently, Magwood was appointed by President Obama to serve on the NRC and is currently serving in that role. Of the current five NRC Commissioners, Magwood is by far, the person most knowledgeable (PMK) about fast reactors.
Thank you for your help in bringing this important matter to the President’s attention.
- Nuclear power is needed. Renewables alone won’t do it.
- In order to revive nuclear in the US, you must have a viable solution to the nuclear waste problem.
- The French reprocess their nuclear waste, but their process is expensive, environmentally unfriendly, and has proliferation problems.
- The USA developed an inexpensive, environmentally friendly, and proliferation resistant method to reprocess our waste (the IFR), but we cancelled it. That decision was a mistake.
- We should restart the IFR in the US. It will cost $3B to build, but we can cancel the Areva MOX plant and save $10B to pay for it. So we’ll save money, save the planet from an environmental catastrophe, create jobs, get rid of our nuclear waste, and become the world leader in clean energy technology.
- President Obama should meet personally with Dr. Charles Till, the world’s leading expert on fast reactor technology. Dr. Till will not waste his time meeting with anyone other than the President because he knows that without personal support of the President, nothing will happen. He’s right.
- Supporters of this technology include Nobel prize winner Hans Bethe (now deceased), Steven Chu, Dr. James Hansen, Dr. Charles Till, Dr. Eric Loewen, Congressman John Garamendi, Bill Gates, and even the President of MIT. Even the board of directors of the historically anti-nuclear Sierra Club has agreed that they will not oppose building an IFR!
- Opposition is from OSTP and OMB. We don’t know who or why. It’s a mystery to all my sources. Frank von Hippel thinks you cannot make fast reactors cheaply or reliably and maintains that stance even when the facts show that not to be the case. Ernie Moniz at MIT thinks we shouldn’t build anything now, but do more R&D for the next several decades hoping we can find something better.
- Bill Magwood, an Obama appointee to the NRC, would be a reasonable choice to provide an objective assessment of the IFR. He has no vested interested in the IFR, but having been the longest serving head of DOE civilian nuclear in history, is familiar with the pros and cons of the technology.
Should OSTP and OMB be making these key decisions behind closed doors? Is this really reflective of what the President wants? He’s stated publicly he wants the US to be a world leader in clean energy. Is putting our best technology on the shelf, but licensing the French and Japanese to build it (Joint Statement on Trilateral Cooperation in the area of Sodium-cooled Fast Reactors signed on October 4, 2010 by DOE), the best way for the US to achieve the leadership that Obama said he wanted?
I am happy to provide you with additional information.
Steven T. Kirsch
For Additional Reading
http://www.sustainablenuclear.org/PADs/pad0509till.html is an article written by Dr. Charles Till describing the history of the IFR, its benefits to society, and the reasons for its cancellation. Here are the last two paragraphs from that article:
The hard truth is this: Only nuclear power can satisfy humanity’s long-term energy needs while preserving the environment. For large-scale, long-term nuclear energy, the supply of nuclear fuel must be inexhaustible. That means the power system must have characteristics very similar to those of the IFR.
It is those very characteristics that led the proponents of this reactor type to single it out for development, and are also precisely what caused, and very likely will continue to cause, its opponents to single it out to be stopped.