A few days ago, an important poster and written paper were presented at the 91st American Meteorological Society (AMS) Annual Meeting, 23-27 Jan 2011, Seattle, WA; Second Conference on Weather, Climate, and the New Energy Economy.
The Integral Fast Reactor (IFR): An Optimized Source for Global Energy Needs
Charles Archambeau (1), Randolph Ware (2,3), Tom Blees (1), Barry Brook (4), Yoon Chang (5), Jerry Peterson (6), Robert Serafin (3), Joseph Shuster (1), Tom Wigley (3)
1: Science Council for Global Initiatives, 2: Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, 3: National Center for Atmospheric Research, 4: University of Adelaide, 5: Argonne National Laboratory, 6: University of Colorado
You can find a description of many of the co-authors (Archambeau, Blees, Brook, Chang and Shuster) on the Science Council for Global Initiatives website. Others include climatologist Tom Wigley, UCAR radiometrician Randolf Ware, Physics Prof Jerry Peterson and Robert Serafin, past director of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) and past president of the AMS. All highly credentialed professionals from a variety of fields relevant to climate change, nuclear engineering and physics, technology development, and business.
Fossil fuels currently supply about 80% of humankind’s primary energy. Given the imperatives of climate change, pollution, energy security and dwindling supplies, and enormous technical, logistical and economic challenges of scaling up coal or gas power plants with carbon capture and storage to sequester all that carbon, we are faced with the necessity of a nearly complete transformation of the world’s energy systems. Objective analyses of the inherent constraints on wind, solar, and other less-mature renewable energy technologies inevitably demonstrate that they will fall far short of meeting today’s energy demands, let alone the certain increased demands of the future.
Nuclear power, however, is capable of providing all the carbon-free energy that mankind requires, although the prospect of such a massive deployment raises questions of uranium shortages, increased energy and environmental impacts from mining and fuel enrichment, and so on. These potential roadblocks can all be dispensed with, however, through the use of fast neutron reactors and fuel recycling.
The Integral Fast Reactor (IFR), developed at U.S. national laboratories in the latter years of the last century, can economically and cleanly supply all the energy the world needs without any further mining or enrichment of uranium. Instead of utilizing a mere 0.6% of the potential energy in uranium, IFRs capture all of it. Capable of utilizing troublesome waste products already at hand, IFRs can solve the thorny spent fuel problem while powering the planet with carbon-free energy for nearly a millennium before any more uranium mining would even have to be considered. Designed from the outset for unparalleled safety and proliferation resistance, with all major features proven out at the engineering scale, this technology is unrivaled in its ability to solve the most difficult energy problems facing humanity in the 21st century.
Our objectives in the conference paper and poster are to describe how the new Generation IV nuclear power reactor, the IFR, can provide the required power to rapidly replace coal burning power plants and thereby sharply reduce greenhouse gas emissions, while also replacing all fossil fuel sources within 30 years. Our conclusion is that this can be done with a combination of renewable energy sources, IFR nuclear power and ordinary conservation measures.
Here we focus on a discussion of the design and functionality of the primary component of this mix of sources, namely the IFR nuclear system, since its exposure to both the scientific community and the public at large has been so limited. However, we do consider the costs of replacing all fossil fuels while utilizing all renewable and nuclear sources in generating electrical energy, as well as the costs of meeting the increasing national and global requirements for electrical power. The IFR to be described relates to the following basic features of the IFR design:
• IFR systems are closed-cycle nuclear reactors that extract 99% of the available energy from the Uranium fuel, whereas the current reactors only extract about 1% of the available energy.
• The waste produced by an IFR consists of a relatively small mass of fission products, consisting of short half-life isotopes which produce a relatively brief toxicity period for the waste (less than 300 years) while current nuclear systems produce much larger amounts of waste with very long toxicity periods (300,000 years).
• An electrochemical processor (called the “pyroprocessor”) can be integrated with a fast reactor (FR) unit to process Uranium fuel in a closed cycling process in which the “spent” nuclear fuel from the FR unit is separated into “fission product” waste and the new isotope fuel to be cycled back into the FR. This recycling process can be repeated until 99% of the original Uranium isotope energy is converted to electrical power. The pyroprocessing unit can also be used in a stand-alone mode to process large amounts of existing nuclear reactor (LWR) waste to provide fuel for IFR reactors. The amount of IFR fuel available is very large and sufficient to supply all world-wide needs for many hundreds of years without Uranium mining.
• The pyroprocessing operations do not separate the mix of isotopes that are produced during the recycling of IFR fuel. Since this mixture is always highly radioactive it is not possible to separate out Uranium or Plutonium isotopes that can be used in weapons development.
• The IFR reactor uses metal fuel rather than the oxide fuels that are used now. If overheating of the reactor core occurs for any reason, the metal fuel reacts by expanding, so its density drops, which causes fast neutron “leakage”, leading to termination of the chain reaction and automatic shut-down of the reactor. This serves as an important passive safety feature.
In the next post in this series, I’ll reproduce the accompanying poster (same authors but different order of appearance — led by Tom Blees) — both the full version for download/printing etc. and the broken-down form suitable for the BNC blog.