A fair amount of material has now accumulated on BNC regarding nuclear energy and the possible ‘proliferation’ implications of commercial nuclear power. Here is a list of the key posts:
Response to an Integral Fast Reactor (IFR) critique (Barry Brook, George Stanford, Tom Blees)
Carbon emissions and nuclear capable countries (Barry Brook)
Q&A on Integral Fast Reactors – safe, abundant, non-polluting power (George Stanford)
Safeguarding the nuclear fuel cycle (Bill Hannum)
Yet despite having abundant factual information on proliferation risks and realities available to them, anti-nuclear ‘activists’ continue to badly misunderstand or deliberately misrepresent this issue. A recent and particularly egregious example, from Green’s senator Scott Ludlum, is here. This follows a consistent pattern of behaviour, as described in detail by Luke Weston here.
Given this context, below I provide a summary the non-proliferation advantages of the IFR, from Charles Till and Yoon Chang of SCGI.
In the late eighties and early nineties Argonne National Laboratory developed a fast reactor system that will supply electricity in any amount, forever, address specifically proliferation concerns related to aqueous reprocessing (PUREX), and provide greater depth of safety, less toxic waste, and real potential for satisfactory economics. The Integral Fast Reactor, or IFR, uses non-enriched uranium, otherwise useless, or used LWR fuel, useless too, and a waste disposal problem as well. The energy generated would be incomparably greater than all the fossil sources in the world could ever produce.
In 1994 though, the Administration abruptly stopped its development, citing proliferation concerns with fast reactors. This was a unilateral US decision. Other major nations did not agree. Today Russia, China, India and Japan have operating fast reactors in place along with PUREX reprocessing capability.
Efficient use of fuel requires reprocessing for re-use and return to the reactor, repeating the cycle over and over again. Over ninety percent is burned. An entirely new process, (pyroprocessing) was developed for this. Its product is primarily plutonium, in a mixture of several other elements. The mixture is well suited to fuel the fast reactor, but not to weapons. Electrochemical energies unique to each element, and the degree to which they differ, dictate what’s possible. The energies of the higher actinide elements such as neptunium and americium, highly radioactive, are so nearly the same as plutonium that they will not separate from it in the process.
These radiologically troublesome elements will always be present and the product will also be heavily diluted with uranium. The term “separated” plutonium has come into use to imply ready use in weapons. “Separated plutonium” in this sense is best applied to plutonium from present day, PUREX, reprocessing, which does separate very pure plutonium. The IFR process does not. The same term is not appropriate for the very different products of the two processes.
While in one or two cases U-235 has been used or proposed for use in weapons, nations that have developed nuclear weapons to date have all used plutonium at least 93% Pu-239, and of very high purity. Specialized knowledge, the freedom to test, chemistry (in all cases, PUREX), explosives, triggers, delivery, as well as the will to move ahead, cover, money, and so on – all are necessary. The point is many things are necessary, one of which is pure plutonium. The IFR process does not even supply that – plutonium clean of other highly radioactive elements.
Process operations, completely inaccessible, require high temperatures and are conducted remotely under very pure inert gas. This isn’t a process that can be done “in a garage.” A crude setup for PUREX processing can reprocess at room temperature in a normal atmosphere behind makeshift shielding. Further, if conventional PUREX reprocessing can be replaced by IFR processing commercially, there will certainly be a gain in the non-proliferation characteristics provided.
There are more advantages. Stymieing nuclear terrorism by “denaturing” and burning excess nuclear weapons materials of nuclear weapons states could be done several times faster than in the current generation of reactors and the used fuel burned in the IFR. Every scrap from the nuclear weapons programs can be fuel. There will be no inactive inventory of plutonium anywhere as a temptation for misuse. There will be no plutonium mine of used LWR fuel disposed of whole as is now proposed. Enriching uranium will be unnecessary in a mature IFR economy. Construction of a uranium enrichment facility or a PUREX type of facility would be prima-facie evidence of a nuclear weapons program.
In addition to non-proliferation advantages, sound nuclear waste management becomes possible, really for the first time. Construction of the key prototype facilities, an action plan for implementation of IFR technology, and resumption of R&D on the important development issues should go forward immediately. This is a beginning. This technology alone has the magnitude to deal with the energy issues now more and more obvious each day.
Some other useful quotes from Charles Till:
Q: So when you say the source is the waste, you’re saying you don’t have to mine any more uranium for a while. What could you use? Can you use weapons material? Can you use waste from reactors?
A: You could use any and all of those things. [If] the weapons stocks are being reduced, as they are today, an ideal way to use that plutonium would be in an IFR. If the policy of the nation were to allow recycling of spent fuel that is a problem now for present day plants, it would be a wonderful [fuel for IFRs]. If in fact IFRs use uranium so effectively, my guess is, you could probably make a few parts per million in sea water. It really does allow an energy source that is unlimited.
Q: Now, what about the issue of proliferation, the issue of making plutonium available to terrorists?
A: The object in the IFR demonstration was to invent, if you like, a process that did not allow separations of pure plutonium that would be necessary for weapons. In order to recycle, you need some kind of a chemical process. And the chemical process that was invented here at Argonne used quite different principles than present processes do. It allows the separation of that group of things that are useful, but not one from the other, so that you cannot separate plutonium purely from uranium and the other things. You can separate uranium, plutonium, and the other useful things from the fission products. So it does exactly what you want it to do. It gives you the new fuel, and it separates off the waste product, but it doesn’t allow careful distinguishing between the materials that are useful, such that you could use one or another of those materials for weapons.
Q: So it would be very difficult to handle for weapons, would it?
A: It’s impossible to handle for weapons, as it stands. It’s highly radioactive. It’s highly heat producing. It has all of the characteristics that make it extremely, well, make it impossible for someone to make a weapon.
Q: The argument most put on the Senate floor was that the IFR increases the risks of proliferation.
A: Yes. Well, it doesn’t. As simply as that. There’s no technical reason why one would make that argument. In order to produce weapons, you have to produce pure plutonium. The IFR process will not do that. The only possible argument that would hold any water whatsoever was that when showing people that plutonium is not the demon substance that it’s been advertised as being, that, in fact, it’s quite a workaday material, that in some way or other, the familiarity of it could be used to say that it doesn’t hold the terrors that it’s supposed to hold, and so, perhaps, more tempting in some way for someone to try to misuse it. But I mean, that’s a far-out kind of argument, it seems to me, compared to the unquestioned benefits from simply using this stuff to produce energy.
Q: But they were arguing that this made the world less safe. Would you say the opposite, or what?
A: No, I would say completely the opposite. Modern society runs on energy. This gives a wonderful, clean form of energy. Its possibility for misuse for weapons goes against the history of the development of nuclear energy over the last 50 years. If weapons are going to be produced, they’re going to be produced by making plutonium in facilities that specifically make weapons-grade plutonium, because that’s the kind that the weapon designer needs. The IFR doesn’t do that.
The IFR fuel and fuel processing lies in the fuel product itself as it comes from the refining process. The methods of reprocessing commercial nuclear fuel in current use in several nations (but not in the US ) were actually developed originally to provide very pure plutonium for use in nuclear weapons. The commercial plants have that same capability.
The IFR process, on the other hand, provided a fuel form with many different materials in it — next to useless for weapons purposes, but ideal as a fuel material. The process cannot purify plutonium from the IFR spent fuel — it is scientifically impossible for it to do so. The IFR technology should not contribute to weapons proliferation. On the contrary, if it replaces the present methods it should substantially reduce such risks.
The IFR refining process also produces a waste with less volume and a shortened radioactive life. The materials that are carried along in the fuel product that ruin its value for weapons are the very ones that give current nuclear ‘waste’ (more accurately, used fuel ) its long-lived radioactivity. But because they remain in the fuel throughout, they are burned up when recycled back into the reactor, and do not appear in the waste in any significant amount. The reduction in radioactive lifetime is dramatic — from tens of thousands of years down to a few hundred at most. And the IFR program included the development and proof testing of very stable, inert waste forms for final disposal.
… While all serious weapons development programs everywhere in the world have always taken place in huge laboratories, in specialized facilities, behind walls of secrecy, and there has been negligible involvement with civilian nuclear power, it is impossible to argue that there CAN be none. For this reason the IFR processes were specifically designed to further minimize such possibilities, and, if developed, they would have represented a significant advance over the present situation.