IFR FaD Nuclear Policy

Why Obama should meet Till

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

Dear Heather,

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:

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:

  1. 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.
  2. It generates no long-lived nuclear waste.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. The design is proven. It produced electric power without mishap for 30 years before the project was abruptly cancelled.
Dr Charles Till

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.

Dr Yoon I. Chang

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.


  1. Nuclear power is needed. Renewables alone won’t do it.
  2. In order to revive nuclear in the US, you must have a viable solution to the nuclear waste problem.
  3. The French reprocess their nuclear waste, but their process is expensive, environmentally unfriendly, and has proliferation problems.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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!
  8. 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.
  9. 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.

Sincerely yours,

Steven T. Kirsch


For Additional Reading 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.

By Barry Brook

Barry Brook is an ARC Laureate Fellow and Chair of Environmental Sustainability at the University of Tasmania. He researches global change, ecology and energy.

80 replies on “Why Obama should meet Till”

Dear Mr. Kirsch,

You should approach Mitt Romney on this also. He is business minded and might listen…and very likely will be the next president.



Is not the GE PRISM design an IFR? Does Geoffrey Immelt, CEO of GE not have personal access to President Obama? It appears to me that GE, and Immelt, are ambivalent about pursuing the nuclear side of their business. Perhaps the profit payoff is too many years away as seen through the enforced myopia of “maximizing return on capital” imposed by corporate requirements. It would also appear that the fossil fuel interests regard technology that can replace coal as a mortal threat, and will stop at nothing to prevent it from happening. Sociopathy? Yes. However, if the technology has a military application, e.g. base islanding, and/or providing nuclear power for all Navy ships, it might sneak through the blockages. However, the IFR is not generally seen as a SMR, which is appropriate for these applications. Otherwise, one can cheer on and (legally) facilitate Chinese science.


GeorgeS, it’s not even clear that Romney is “conservative” (read: authoritarian) enough for the rabidly right-wing Republican base for him to be the likely winner of the party’s nomination. So is the “wishful thinking rhetoric” just a thinly disguised attempt to influence the outcome? Seems a poor strategy to get your guy elected.

But Republicans in general for sure should be approached with the IFR concept. Despite their nearly lockstep denial of AGW, nuclear energy is one thing they are willing to embrace, and we need every tool at our disposal to combat fossil fuels. Plus we need allies against the anti-nuclear activists.

Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed reading Kirch’s letter. If by some wild chance I happen to win the supporter dinner with Obama, I’ll see if Till can go in my place. Otherwise, if I do get the opportunity to actually meet him, Obama will get an earful about the nuclear imperative and the IFR.


seamus, on 28 September 2011 at 3:00 AM said:

“But Republicans in general for sure should be approached with the IFR concept. Despite their nearly lockstep denial of AGW, nuclear energy is one thing they are willing to embrace,”

Yes, If Mr Kirsch wants to sell this plan to the Republicans he should change the order of the advantages of the IFR. Put global warming at the bottom of the list.


Paul Wick, on 28 September 2011 at 2:03 AM said:

Is not the GE PRISM design an IFR? Does Geoffrey Immelt, CEO of GE not have personal access to President Obama?

You can find the word ‘nuclear’ in GE’s annual report 4 times. Nuclear Imaging, a board members association with the ‘Nuclear Threat Initiative’ and twice in the accounting footnotes –

Click to access GE_AR10.pdf


Reading this has made me an optimist again… for a day or two, at least.

Then the wet blankets of climate science denial, anti-nuclear fervour and anti-science generally might descend again.

I really hope that I am wrong about the wet blankets. This author makes extremely good sense.


Paul Wick and harrywr2 have introduced my question:

If the PRISM is as valuable as Eric Loewen and Steve Kirsch have convinced me that it is, why do we need to spend so much time convincing politicians of its value?

Why can’t GE, a $157 billion per year corporation full of good engineers with its own capital financing arm, decide to take a page from a Nike commercial and “Just do it.”

They do not need anyone’s permission or assistance to get the ball moving very rapidly, though they would need at least some support in order to get through the morass called the Nuclear Regulatory Commission with any technology that is not spelled LWR.

However, that battle can be fought while the technology development is moving forward.

The questions that beg to be asked whenever anyone says that the Clinton Administration cancelled the IFR “for political reasons” are as follows:

“Be specific. What political reasons? Whose interest was being threatened by the technology? Are those interests any weaker now than they were in 1992?”

Fossil fuel interests (including their bankers) hate any energy technology that succeed in taking market share. The IFR is extremely threatening because it removes one of the few remaining arguments against nuclear fission – “What do you do with the waste?”

IFR makes that a great question with a positive answer “you recycle it to make more energy.”


I don’t know much about American politics, but the line about Mr. Kirsch being the largest contributor with 10 million dollars for Al Gore might be useful to get some Obama attention.

On the other hand, why is that “Al Gore”? Didn’t Kirsch contribute anything to the first Obama presidential campaign?

Of course, it might be just that he didn’t think it appropriate to mention such a contribution in this kind of letter.

I agree with Rod Adams above that it might be of interest to find out what exactly the “political reasons” behind that first cancellation were if one wants to reverse that.


While I admire the design work of the Argonne Scientists who developed the IFR, I the claim that the IFR will save us is bodus. The IFR requires a huge start up charge, a start up charge that is 10 times the size required by graphite moderated LFTRs. The size of the start up charge is the killer for the IFR. The IFR is incapable of rapid global deployment for because each IFR will require up to 18 tons of RGP for every GWe of generating capacity. There is not enough RGP in the world to support that sort of deployment. Indeed If IFR start up charges drew on all all of the globle stokpiles of all of the Weapons Grade Pu-239 and U-235, they still could not make much of a dent into the world’s current energy demand, let alone supply the future energy needs of developing and underdeveloped econemies.

The IFR prototype ANL has been developing is designed to breed at maximum 1.05 ratio which is not better than the ratio LFTRs are expected to breed at. I have no doubt that IFRs could theoretically breed at a much higher rate, but reaching that point would involve a far greater developmental challenge than the Argonne crew acknowledges. The path of LFTR development was laid out some 40 years ago by ORNL researchers. They did not foresee any major problems. These were the same scientists who laid the foundation for light water reactor development.

Without an assured path to a high breeding ration, the IFR does not offer an assurred path to a nuclear future. Starting even one IFR will require a huge amount of RGP, perhaps as much as 18 tons per GWe generating capacity. That is around 10 times the start up charge size for LFTRs. Thus for every one IFR that can be started, 10 LFTRs can be started.

The IFR crowd has made claims about breeding ratios as high as 1.6 will compense for the IFR start up charge problem, but high breeding ratios are going to lead inevitably to materials and safety problems which the Argonne team never explored in their IFR development research. The huge start up charge was a major factor in the Indian decision to use thorium breeders, by the way.


I agree with Charles that the high fissile start charge is an issue for global dominance of IFRs. There is a tradeoff between breeding ratio and startup charge. If you want to breed better this requires that you put in more fertile which needs to be accompanied by more fissile ie more startup charge. Since the startup charge for IFRs is so large

There is talk of making fast reactors small, like S-PRISM or even smaller. This makes it worse since many neutrons will leak out due to poor volume to surface area ratios. This needs even more fissile startup.

There are also problems with actinide loss rates in the processing steps. If you lose actinides in the processing the supposed waste problem stays.

I would prefer to put the plutonium in a thermal “once through” converter molten fluoride salt reactor with no online processing and only thorium as fertile with a small Pu feeding to top up the fissile. This will allow us to transition to the quicker Th-U233 economy while burning out 90% of the existing plutonium waste.


As well as listing the IFR’s valuable characteristics, Steve Kirsch also describes them as unique. Does that imply that he dismisses or gives no credence to the equivalent claims made by proponents of competing 4th generation reactor designs?

Possibly, the unique feature to which he refers is that he believes that the IFR is the only design that is ready to build and feels the need for urgent action – (Point 6 on his list). It would be helpful to know how ready. For example, to what extent is further R&D necessary before pyroprocessing of irradiated fuel is perfected?

Point 5 on the list suggests that the IFR has the potential to produce power more cheaply than that from coal. Of course, this will, to an extent, depend upon the price of coal. Nevertheless, the implication is that IFRs will be cheaper to build than LWRs. How, therefore, can the author answer the contrary statements of other nuclear experts such as Peterson and Forsberg? Per Peterson, for example, is pushing for the evolutionary PB-AHTR design on the basis that it will produce power significantly more cheaply than that from LWRs and that, because of its use of qualified materials, is nearly as ready for deployment as the IFR. It would appear that the US DoE might be leaning towards the latter design on the basis of the recent funding announced for MIT and collaborators essentially to pursue this brief.

Because I am from the UK with its large stockpile of RGP, which the government apparently finds embarrassing, I am very sympathetic to the IFR. However, I would welcome reassurances about potential costs and deployment readiness.


Actually Peterson and Forsberg suggest that IFR is cheaper than LWR in capital cost, and the AHTR is in turn cheaper than the IFR. Forsberg also suggests that an IFR with fluoride coolant is cheaper than an IFR with sodium coolant.

They have got compelling arguments for that, as well. Based on physics such as volumetric heat capacity and more efficient (a bit hotter than IFR) steam and gas turbines.


I should make a few additional comments on the “why has no commercial IFR operated before”.

While vested interests are always a hurdle, this isn’t the whole story. There are at least three other factors to consider.

First is the fissile cost. IFRs require more fissile for startup. This increases the capital cost which is the worst type of cost since you need it all up front before getting any revenues back. This is especially important when using plutonium for startup since it costs an arm and a leg. Good for waste eating PR but bad for those who must pay to get it.

Second is the business model. Existing reactor vendors make money by using long term fuel fabrication contracts. With cheap online fuel fabrication this is not present so a different business model is required (maybe a fixed charge for reprocessing or something). I’m not sure if this has been fixed yet.

Third is the regulatory risk. Metal fuel, sodium and fast spectrum is something very different than oxide fuel, water and thermal spectrum. Plus you have the online processing equipment with associated regulatory risk. For a private investor this risk is something that is difficult to estimate. Even GE is a privately held company and must answer to its stock holders. They are a conservative bunch, only interested in quick money making at the lowest possible risk and investment. Even with GE offering a FOAK fast reactor modular unit for free, even governments are not willing to take the risk. The regulatory riks is increased by the fact that people can object and most people do not understand metal fuel dilatation coefficients and passive decay heat cooling systems that make these reactors safer than LWRs.


Cyril R:

You know far more about nuclear technology than I and I always pay great attention to your comments here and on the energy from thorium site. However, unless Peterson and Forsberg have very recently changed their minds, your comment that they claim that potential capital costs are likely to be cheaper for IFRs than LWRs is not consistent with with what I have read in several of their papers, jointly written or otherwise. I will cite a single example:

Click to access salt-cooled-fast-reactor.pdf


Douglas, from your source, which is excellent by the way,

Preliminary overnight capital costs for several exit temperatures were determined relative to the S-PRISM SFR. For a salt-cooled reactor with an exit coolant temperature of 800ºC, the capital cost [$930/kW(e)] was 55% of that of the S-PRISM per kilowatt (electric). There are several reasons for these major capital cost savings.
• Higher efficiency. The higher temperature implies higher efficiency (51 vs 38%). This results in lower costs per kilowatt (electric) because of the smaller power conversion equipment, cooling systems to reject heat from the power cycle, and decay-heat-removal systems.
• Passive decay heat removal. The salt-cooled and sodium-cooled reactors use the same decay-heat-removal systems. Heat rejection is dependent upon the vessel size and peak vessel temperature. The reactor vessel size is the same for both concepts. However, a salt-cooled reactor operates at higher temperatures. By allowing the peak vessel temperature in an accident to increase from 550 to 750ºC, the same size vessel used in a 1000-MW(t) reactor can reject the decay heat from a 2400-MW(t) reactor. Although the nuclear island size does not change, the power output is much larger. The added cost is the requirement to use higher-temperature materials for the vessel and core components.
• Reduced containment requirements. The liquid-salt coolant coupled to a Brayton power cycle prevents any sodium─water interactions. Liquid salts do not react with air and only slowly react with water. This eliminates the highly energetic chemical accidents associated with sodium safety systems.
• Reduced equipment sizes. Volumetric heat capacities (Table I) for liquid salts are several times larger than those for sodium and double those of lead. This reduces the size of pipes, valves, and heat exchangers per unit of energy transferred and implies smaller equipment for a 2400-MW(t) liquid-salt-cooled reactor than for a 1000-MW(t) sodium-cooled reactor.
• Transparent coolant. Unlike liquid metals, liquid salts are transparent. This simplifies refueling, maintenance, and inspection of the primary system.
Any advanced reactor must compete with LWRs. Preliminary studies have compared the quantities of materials required to build various advanced reactors.7 As shown in Fig. 3, the initial estimates of AHTR materials requirements are about half those for the newest LWR reactor concepts. An LSFR would be expected to have similar materials requirements. There are large uncertainties in these estimates because of the early state of technological development. The potentially favorable economics are a consequence of coupling a large passively-safe high-temperature reactor with a low-pressure high-volumetric-heat-capacity coolant to an efficient high-temperature Brayton power cycle.

Sodium IFR = (930/0.55)= 1690/kWe
Salt IFR = 930/kWe
LWR = 3000-6000/kWe.

So sodium cooled IFR is cheaper than LWR and liquid salt IFR is cheaper than sodium cooled LWR. But then that’s not entirely fair as original costs for the FOAK AP1000 and the FOAK EPR were much lower too. With the current attitude to all things nuclear a 1.5-2x cost overrun for FOAK seems standard. But both the sodium IFR and the salt cooled reactor are low pressure and have more efficient power cycles. That certainly presses down the cost.


Douglas, I am in agreement with Cyril. Peterson and Forsberg have looked at trhe inputs into reactor construction, and that is one of the manny omissions of the IFR advocacy comm,unity. (There is however a study posted on the Light Bridge lhat does.) But IFR advocates seem to prefer to avoid Light Bridge documents. Unlike the LFTR community which thrives with an open science approach, the community of IFR advocates performs secrecy to open science. Why is that?


I am totally at a loss of what to think re comments by CB and Cyril R. How can Steve Kirsch and Barry be so pro IFR with such a huge fly in the ointment. What is their counter argument.


George, I believe that both Cyril and I are attempting to encourage the IFR backers to begin to practice open science, and answer what we believe are questions that IFR backers should answer before they send Charles Till off to see the President. If you guys can’t answer our questions Dr. Till should be recommending the LFTR rather than the IFR.



Thanks for your response. You quote extensively from the source I cited. However, the cost comparisons you make do not come from this source and I suspect that you may be making an apples to oranges comparison. I would guess that your LWR costs include build and finance costs while those for IFRs,regardless of cooling, omit the finance costs.

Might I draw your attention to the paper’s abstract which seems to back my original contention:

“Sodium cooled fast reactors are capable of producing nuclear fuel and reducing long-lived wastes; however, their capital cost is greater than that of light water reactors (LWRs).”

If I worked at it, I could find equivalent statements in other papers, but the above seems to be sufficiently clear.

I think it extremely important that new generation plants have the potential to produce power more cheaply than existing ones and, ideally, more cheaply than from coal. I think Steve Kirsch has expressed similar views. Therefore, in my view, the comments of Peterson and Forsberg deserve serious investigation. I would be delighted if they were proved to be wrong, but I have seen no rebuttal of them by sodium-cooled IFR proponents.


With respect to what GE is or isn’t doing to get a PRISM built, during the Bush admin, there was an attempt to push the Advanced Recycling Center – PRISM + pyroprocessing. I believe that this was in the context of the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) which would divide the world into nuclear fuel supplier nations and the rest. Suppliers would take back spent light water reactor fuel for recycling or disposal.

Click to access GE-Hitachi%20Advanced%20Recycling%20Center.pdf

Click to access 2007RIC.GE.NRC.PRISM.pdf

There also seems to be some move to build a PRISM at Savannah River

Does anybody have any further up to date information on this?


Cyril R., on 29 September 2011 at 3:35 AM — Interesting cost comparisons. But for the Gen IV types one has to add the cost of the initial fuel load. Previous comments suggest this is quite an expense. Any idea how much that adds to the cost?


I recall from reading Tom Blees’ “Prescription for the Plant”, it takes about 7 years for an IFR to breed enough plutonium to start up another IFR. How much plutonium is produced in a conventional reactor (i.e. Gen II or III) compared to an IFR? And for how many more years will Gen II and III reactors be the dominant types of reactors built? 40 years?

Surely those making the claim that there isn’t enough reactor-grade plutonium available for IFRs to work need to provide some numbers and references to back up their claims? If plutonium availability really is such a show-stopper why are so many very intelligent people, without any vested interest in the technology, so enthusiastic about it?


Tom Keen:

Surely, unless one is a purist and seeks to ban uranium mining, sodium-cooled IFRs are not dependent for their start charges solely upon RGP? Wouldn’t enriched uranium be equally satisfactory?

That said, there would appear to be several routes available to achieve sustainable nuclear energy. For example, an alternative is described in the following link:

I think the most important criterion in making a choice should be based upon which, in the end, will provide the cheapest power.


I think the most important criterion in making a choice should be based upon which, in the end, will provide the cheapest power.

Which in the end comes down to allowing them to compete on a level playing field. Even if the LFTR advocates are correct, and their product is “superior”, the IFR will surely still have a niche market in the future for eating up current generation “nuclear waste”. But, as a lay-person when it comes to engineering, the IFR sounds more full of promise than that to me.


They say marching to the gallows concentrates the mind wonderfully. By mid century when all fossil fuels are in steep decline and the climate is crazy people will be in no mood for quibbles. We’ll need to max out 3rd generation NP just to get to 2050 as a cohesive society (even if that is possible) so the 4th generation successor(s) should be clear cut.



I, too, am a layman when it comes to engineering. It would, as you state, be desirable overall to see competition between designs, though not at all desirable for the financial backers of the less successful ones. Of course, it might be possible to envisage a consortium of like-minded nations building several designs and agreeing to share the benefits of that which proves the winner.

The evolutionary approach such as the PB-AHTR might be a cheaper and safer strategy. It would provide lessons which would could advance development of both fast and thermal routes, as well as solid and liquid fuelled ones. Its principal claimed advantages are those of rapid deployment capability and power cheaper than from LWRs. However, if the S-Prism version of the IFR (involving reactor design and fuel processing integration) really is ready to go now and needs no further development, one of the advantages of the evolutionary approach will fall away.

My comments have been made in the hope of finding out the extent to which Steve Kirsch’s claims of low cost and readiness to go ahead are really valid for the GE version of the IFR. However, as pointed out upthread, there are, on the face of it, compelling physics reasons to believe that a solid fuelled, molten salt cooled fast reactor should provide cheaper power, even in the absence of Brayton cycle development, than would an equivalent sodium-cooled design. It is entirely possible that I am wrong. I would, therefore, value reassurances from the Prism supporters.


After reading this, two key questions emerge. The first is, what are the implications of actually building thousands of these things in the U.S. and tens of thousands around the world? And secondly, is there a conspiracy here?

I would argue that building IFRs at the rate of hundreds a decade after 2020 will do nothing to lower carbon emissions. At first that might seem to make no sense at all, but past experience proves otherwise. Indeed, between 1975 and 2005 California (SteveK9’s home) more than doubled the efficiency of its electricity use. However, per capita, electricity use remained only flat. And because of obscene population growth, it doubled.

According to the Export Land Model, U.S. oil imports will be cut off by 2020. The U.S. even peaked in producible energy from coal in 1998, and nat. gas back in 1973. China is at peak coal now. Shale gas is a chimera with an EROEI as low as tarsands, and conventional gas worldwide is about to go off a cliff. So, putting more energy into the economy won’t cause us to use less fossil fuels, it will just go to more growth. Even with abundant fossil fuels, until you change money, you change nothing. More energy and efficiency has always gone to more growth. In a post peak oil world, that is even more true.

Peak fossil fuels, in terms of net energy, is now. Global warming will solve itself. We must instead use this opportunity to adjust our economies and level of population growth to reflect this new reality.

The second question, of course, is that these people who oppose the IFR are maybe not complete idiots, and realize that in order to get a steady state economy and halt massive population growth, often driven by Third World mestizo immigration, they must delay the IFR for several decades.

Indeed, Roscoe Bartlett, perhaps the most conservative member of the House, has given numerous speeches about peak oil and energy, and argued time and again that we’re going to be completely cut off, and as a last resort we’ll be forced to turn to breeder reactors. Now, he was a part of the House in 1994, and could have stood up for the IFR given his knowledge of energy, but didn’t. The IFR prevailed in the Senate, but lost in the House, allowing Clinton to choose to pull the plug. So, clearly Dr. Bartlett didn’t want massive growth– a population of a billion obese people living in McMansions and driving 100 mile commutes everyday using synthetic fuel made from an obscene number of IFRs at low conversion efficiency.
(Comment deleted. Off-topic – 9/11 conspiracy theories belong on the Open Thread if anywhere on BNC.)

Our leaders are not complete idiots, they just feel that in order to follow “The Three Ways Out,” conservation must come first, then efficiency, then finally fast reactors decades from now. Global warming will solve itself, since we are at peak fossil fuels, on a net energy basis, right now.


Numbers. They are all-important in energy decisions.

First, the IFR is supposed to solve the TRU waste problem. So let’s look at how much TRUs it can eat. How much TRUs (Np, Pu, Am, Cm) will we have available to start them up?

If we continue on building more LWRs we’ll have maybe 10,000 tonnes of TRUs. We will need at least 10 tonnes per GWe IFR.

So we can make 1000 GWe, or 1 TWe of IFRs. But we’ll need at least 10,000 GWe or 10 TWe of clean electricity by 2050. So is only 10% of what we really need.

Second question, how fast do IFRs breed? Since we can only make 1 TWe of IFRs we want them to breed quickly. However at a 10 ton TRU inventory is only 7 ton fissile and the best you can do in breeding with such a low inventory is about 1.05.

That means we make 5% more fuel each year than we consume. How much fuel do we consume? We need about 900 kg per year to fission for 1 GWe-year. So we only make 45 kg of excess fissile per year. But we needed 7000, remember?

7000/45= 155 years to start up a new GWe of IFRs. In practice it could be somewhat faster because IFRs are smaller than a 1 GWe so we can have compound growth. But it will still be a long time to double. The growth rate is almost certainly smaller than the growth rate in global electricity demand.

This is a fundamental technology problem of fast reactors.

Of course we can still start up on low enriched, mined uranium, and this will in fact be cheaper, but that means we can’t sell it as waste eating.

But there’s no choice. If we are to transition to these IFRs we’ll need mined uranium to do it in any reasonable timeframe.

This is quite reasonable, by the way. The IFR may need two or three times as much mined fuel to startup as a LWR but it needs it only once. The LWR needs to add 1/3 new fuel every couple of years, meaning a full startup charge every 6 years. Assume 60 year reactor lifetime. This means 10 cores worth. Or 3 to 5 IFR cores worth. So with IFRs we still end up with 3 to 5 times less mined uranium consumption and moreover we don’t need any more mined uranium after that. Call it an investment in the future with excellent payback time.


Regarding cost there are a few things to keep in mind.

Both the IFR and the MSR operate at low pressure and high temperature. This means much cheaper primary nuclear boundary equipment – thinner pressure vessel, thinner smaller pumps, heat exchangers, etc. It also means a much cheaper containment. With smaller, thinner equipment everything can be modular series produced leading to faster learning rates. And high temperature means more electricity per reactor thermal rating. The IFR has low fuel fabrication costs and the MSR has no fuel fabrication cost at all. Both the IFR and MSR have small processing units that do not appear to cost all that much. In fact both IFR and MSR can be built as converter reactors started up on mined uranium without online fuel processing. This could be a good way to get an early start with these reactors since the less proven online processors can be omitted for the time being.

These thing have a big influence on cost and should give both the IFR and MSR a decisive advantage over LWRs. Intrinsically, MSRs have higher heat capacity and less reactive, transparent coolants plus more efficient power cycles which should put them at an advantage over IFRs.

The AHTR has a big business model advantage over the above two reactors. It uses proven components combined into an innovative system. Since almost all of the individual components are proven this reduces the development needs and makes it more attractive to investors. The fact that it has fuel to fabricate in a standard once-through operation means the industry will have the same business model; making money with fuel fabrication contracts. So you have more industry support. The regulators support it too since it uses qualified TRISO fuel.

If the AHTR is developed, many of us MSR supporters feel we can use most of the AHTR components that will put MSRs in a better commercialization position.


We have two arguments going on in this thread. One has to do with the relative merrits of the Molten Salt and Liquid Metal nuclear technologies. The other has to do with the usefulness of Nuclear power for the control of global carbon emissions.

George claims, “I would argue that building IFRs at the rate of hundreds a decade after 2020 will do nothing to lower carbon emissions. At first that might seem to make no sense at all, but past experience proves otherwise. Indeed, between 1975 and 2005 California (SteveK9′s home) more than doubled the efficiency of its electricity use. However, per capita, electricity use remained only flat. And because of obscene population growth, it doubled.”

Lets look at George’s claim that building hundreds of IFRs a decade will not help. But building hundreds of reactors a decade could potentially replace most of the American carbon emitting energy sources by 2050. Of cource the LFTR advocates are concerned about our abiliity to start all of those IFRs, and would suggest that starting hundreds of MSRs per decade is a more practical project. The argument between LFTR and IFR advocates is basically about how best to substitute nuclear energy for fossil fuel use.

George wants us to substitute efficiency for energy generation. But George makes claimes about the potential of efficiency that are poorly thought out. For example, George claims that the California economy has grown more energy efficient between 1975 and 2005. In fact the California electrical demand has nearly doubled between 1980 and 2010 according to the California Energy Comission.

Click to access 2000-07-14_200-00-002.PDF

George’s cllaim also ignores changes in the California economy during the last 30 years that has effected local energy use. What has happened in California is that Industries which have high energy demand have been driven offshore. California has exported tens of thousands of high energy Industrial jobs offshore, many of them to China. California’s energy efficiency is a mirage because California continues to consume products that require high energy input, only now those products are made in China.

When you count the Chinese energy input into the California economy, the California economy does not seem nearly as energy efficient. Thus George’s claims about California’s energy efficiency do not offer patrhs to carbon control.


@ Cyril R

Thanks for the fantastic detailed response re. fuel requirements for IFRs. I’ll have a proper read and digest after the weekend.


Although I was a strong supporter of President Obama (and will vote for him again), the last 3 years have demonstrated conclusively that he is primarily a facilitator, not a leader. I don’t believe it is correct that one can say ‘if only we could talk to President Obama, we could convince him, and then he would lead the way’. You would be one voice among very many that would go into his process of trying to reach a consensus (with the current GOP, even he may have finally realized this is impossible — the last person in the country to do so). As an example many people have written to Paul Krugman: ‘if only you could meet with the President you could convince him to ….’, Krugman’s answer is ‘been there, done that’.

On the question of IFR versus LFTR, I don’t have the time to research it the way many people here have done, but from what I do read the LFTR (or variations) seem a better idea. In fact, I became interested again in nuclear energy, when I ran across an article on it years ago (might have been Charles Barton’s blog). When I read this, my thought was ‘this is it!’ and I haven’t seen anything to change me mind.

I would agree strongly with Rod’s comments about GE. GE has the resources to do something without help from the general public. Are even the largest private companies now so risk-averse that they will only move with government aid? You could make the same comments about the ESBWR. GE seems to think this is their best current design. Why don’t they put their money where their mouth is? Give someone a guaranteed price and build the first one. There will be a cost-overrun of course, but just eat it, to get the business going. It may sound silly to call them wimps but that is exactly the feeling I have.


Sorry, should have mentioned that Krugman is a Nobel-prize-winning economist, who is more or less a Keynesian and is politically active. He has nothing to do with nuclear energy, but a similar sort of reasoning has been used to that suggested above, that he could convince Obama to pursue different economic policies and then like the raging bull that he is, Obama would make it happen.


quokka, on 29 September 2011 at 8:52 AM said:

There also seems to be some move to build a PRISM at Savannah River

Thx for the link quokka.

from an article yesterday:

“Yesterday the U.S. Energy Department released its first-ever “Quadrennial Technology Review,” saying it wants to increase research funding for electrified vehicles and supporting infrastructure.”

but further buried in the article we find:

“The Energy Department will also focus on engineering support for licensing a new type of nuclear reactor known as the small modular reactor.”

Perhaps this is PRISM which you gave a link for in WNN.



The Energy Department …Perhaps this is PRISM which you gave a link for in WNN.

Volume 7,Page 49, 2012 US DOE Budget Request

Click to access Volume7.pdf

The mission of the Light Water Reactor (LWR) Small Modular Reactor (SMR) Licensing Technical Support program is to support design certification and licensing activities for two LWR-based SMR
designs through cost-shared arrangements with industry partners in order to promote accelerated deployment of SMRs.

Page 64 –
R&D to support near term deployment of a domestic commercial Sodium Fast Reactor(SFR) has been discontinued. Long-term R&D on Gen IV reactor concepts, including the SFR, with international GIF partners will continue.


I like these small reactors because you could use the waste heat in Northern Climates for community heating. (Like the Russians do).


I’d put the likely magnitude of the problem this way; in terms of primary energy demand
2011: 17 TW = 13 fossil + 4 non-fossil
2050: 22 TW = 5 fossil + 17 non-fossil


I have had my attention called away for the last few days, at conferences and grants committees. I see this thread has e(de)volved into, in part, a discussion on the relative merits of IFR vs LFTR or other concepts such as the PB-AHTR. In principle I have no problem with discussions of this nature, but I would like to make a number of points, based on my thinking and that of my other close confederates.

First, my general philosophy on the Gen IV nuclear front is that groups should do their best to promote their ideas, but that undertaking arcane critiques of perceived competitors is not a winning strategy. All of these approaches have strong justification on sustainability, scalability and economic bases, especially compared to their perceived competitors, and we should not lose focus of this fact nor give a misleading impression that this is the case. I’m sure the vast majority of you are aware of this, as later comments on alternatives to nuclear fission by Charles B and Cyril R have elaborated, but the caution remains a standing item.

Second, the MIT/Berkeley proposal for using molten salt as a coolant only (the pebble fuel is conventional HTGR fuel) is a different concept compared to the ORNL MSR or the modern LFR, and of course the devil is in the detail. Until decent development work is done, it would be hard to make claims one way or another on the technical feasibility, relative costs, pinch points, potential show stoppers, etc. There is also a general question on the overall rationale for an advanced thermal system. The current generation of advanced LWRs will need to be one of the nuclear fission workhorses in the coming decades. The value of a fast reactor system (such as IFR), or an isobreeder with low fissile requirements like the LFTR, are that they can extend the uranium/thorium resource utilization by a hundred-fold (not just a factor of two) and solve the waste problem by burning actinides (IFR especially, on the latter point). So the motivation to develop and demonstrate a brand new unknown system is still not clear, except on speculated cost grounds.

Third, many of the numbers being used here for the IFR are simply not correct. There is a relationship between fissile content and reactor size, but not between fissile and breeding ratios (at least not in the way implied). In principle, a BR of 1.5 (not 1.05) can be achieved in a relatively large (1 GWe-sized) metal-fueled pool-design SFR with an inventory of 8 tonnes fissile, yielding a doubling time of 11 years. Well-meaning folks like Charles Barton and co., with whom I agree on most issues, will and does like to try and dispute these figures and complain about lack of public open-source documentation on these details, and of course he’s quite within his right to object on this or any other matter regarding fast reactors, if he chooses. But it doesn’t change what is known by those engineers and scientists who worked on this technology for many decades, and understand the systems — their strengths, benefits, problems and outstanding issues — nor what data has been accumulated, tested and archived that is not public. As I have said before, it is these experts, not bloggers, who will ultimately need to convince decision makers and financiers as to the viability of a given system like the IFR. And this is as it should be. Our role as bloggers is not, and cannot be, to dissect the deep technical minutae and try to draw sweeping conclusions from a limited technical and also completely absent experiential basis.

Still, there is a fillip coming — a detailed book on the IFR programme and underpinning technological basis, written by the experts, will be released in the not-too-distant future (I’ve read and commented on the entire draft). Once released, it will act as a complement Koch’s book on EBR-II, but with a focus on the 1984-1994 breakthrough work. Many of the details that have remained elusive to many are made clear therein. It is an exceptional body of work, and beautifully explained. And it is written for a general (technically competent) audience. I can’t wait for it to be out there — it is frequently frustrating to me to see some of the misguided dialogue that sometimes goes on here on BNC on the technical basis of the IFR, when I know the actual facts but cannot yet cite my sources in detail. That will soon change, so for now, I guess I’ll have to remain mildly frustrated, and the sometimes wild speculation will have to continue! So be it.

Meanwhile, the political push for the IFR restart will continue. See next post.


Regarding Charles Barton’s comments, the LFTR is a dead end, simply because we don’t have the fissile material needed to start these things up. The breeding ratio of the LFTR is very low, around 1.01. The IFR, in contrast, has a breeding ratio of 1.65. What little U-233 we do have on hand, the DOE plans to spend $477 million to destroy!

As for my comments about California, thanks for proving my point. Yes, California uses electricity over three times as efficiently. Yes, between 1980 and 2010 electricity consumption doubled. So yes, even with Diablo Canyon and San Onofre cranking out more power than ever before, and even with vastly more efficieny, electricity use and fossil fuel use still rose tremendously! This is called the Jevons Paradox. The efficiency and nuclear just went to more growth, as did the increased fossil use. This is a concept a lot of people have a hard time grappling with. The fact that energy use rose that much even WITH energy-intensive industries being exported overseas just lends even more proof to my point! Just think about the economy this way: energy in, garbage out. Until we change the infinite growth paradigm, and change money, efficiencies and primary energy sources will ALWAYS go to more growth. So, thanks for proving my point.


George left a small hand grenade in his comment:

“and change money…”

Close to off topic, I know, but what does that mean? Perhaps a reference out of this thread to an explanation?


Barry, I have looked at documents related to the IFR on the information Bridge, and have so far been unable to find any evidence of an IFR prototype design that would breed in the 1.50 to 1.65 breeding ratio range. In fact the IFR prototype studies on the Information Bridge that I have been able to locate are capable of breeding in the 0.2 to 1.05 range. It would appear that most of the Argonne IFR R&D has goon into developing an IFR prototype with modest breeding capacity. I challenge IFR backers to point out evidence from DoE documents, that a higher ratio IFR prototype has ever been in the developmental phase.

The lack of IFR prototype development raises troubling issues. First there are significant materials issues related to high neutron flux and heat in high breeding ratio reactors. I have not seen evidence that the high breeding ratio IFR material issues have been assessed let alone adressed by ANL and INL researchers. If ANL and INL researchers have not yet assessed the material problems, they certainly have not addressed solutions yet. I do not doubt that material problems can be solved, but this will take time and will cost.

Again I am unaware of cost estimates related to the construction of a high breeding ratio prototype. but when Congress pulled the plug on the higher breeding ratio (around 1.20) Clinch River Breeder Reactor in the early 1980’s development costs had risen to $8 Billion. It would be nice to assume that the development of a high breeding ratio IFR prototype

In addition to the materials issues that would have to be identified and solved before a high breeder prototype can be built, there are legitimate safety concerns. I would refer you to “Metal Fire Implications for Advanced Reactors, Part 1: Literature Review.” a Sandia National Laboratory produced document. This report is not nearly as optimistic about IFR safety as ANL reports are. It would appear that there are still safety issues to be sorted out even with low breeding ratios, and the safety of higher breeding ratio IFRS has not been established.

The development of the high breeding ratio prototype would posea significant and expensive challenge. In an essay titled, Nuclear Power and Energy Security: A Revised Strategy for Japan, or my review of that essay. The essay authors, Lawrence M. Lidsky and Marvin M. Miller of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, do an excellent job of laying out the issues. They state,

“The LMFBR was chosen over other breeder reactor designs because it was, in theory, capable of very short fuel doubling times, shorter than that of any competing reactor design. The doubling time is the time required to produce an excess of fuel equal to the amount originally required to fuel the reactor itself. In other words, in one doubling time there would be enough fuel available to start up another reactor. In the absence of mined uranium, only a short doubling time would, it was believed, allow nuclear power to grow fast enough to compete with alternative sources of power. Unfortunately, the theoretical advantages of the LMFBR could not be achieved in practice. A successful commercial breeder reactor must have three attributes; it must breed, it must be economical, and it must be safe. Although any one or two of these attributes can be achieved in isolation by proper design, the laws of physics apparently make it impossible to achieve all three simultaneously, no matter how clever the design. The fundamental problem originates in the very properties of sodium that make the short doubling time possible. The physical characteristics of sodium and plutonium are such that a loss of sodium coolant in the center of the core of a breeding reactor (caused, for example, by overheating) would tend to increase the power of the reactor, thus driving more sodium from the core, further increasing the power in a continuous feedback loop. The resulting rapid, literally uncontrollable, rise in reactor power is clearly unacceptable from a safety standpoint. This effect, the so-called “positive void coefficient” can be mitigated by, for example, changing the shape of the core so that more neutrons leak out of the core, but this immediately compromises the reactor’s breeding potential. Safety and breeding are thus mutually antagonistic. This situation can be alleviated to some extent by making radical design changes, but these changes lead to greatly increased costs, and make the reactor prohibitively expensive. Even if the LMFBR could meet its original, highly optimistic, operating goals and the LWR/FBR power cycle were put into operation, it is unclear that the goal of energy security would be achieved. As discussed in the following sections, the measures that would have to be put in place to protect all parts of the fuel cycle against terrorism would have very high social costs. Equally important is the increased risk of accidental or maliciously-induced technological failure. Compared to light water reactors operating on the once-through fuel cycle, the breeder fuel cycle is much more complex and error-prone. This implies a higher probability that the entire nuclear system or a significant fraction thereof might need to be shutdown because of a generic problem, e.g., with sodium containment, in the reactors or an accident in one of the reprocessing or fuel fabrication plants that serve the system.”

And some time ago in a lecture at ANL, Alvin Weinberg observed,

“although we cannot identify physical limits that make a world of 7,000 large LMFBR’s impossible, one would have to concede that the demands on the technology would be formidable. Two issues appear to me to predominate: first, the acceptable accident rate will probably have to be much lower than the Rasmussen report suggests. If one uncontained core meltdown per 100 years is acceptable (and we have no way of knowing what an acceptable rate really is), then the probability of such an accident will have to be reduced to about one in 1 million per reactor per year. This is the design goal for the LMFBR project in the United States. Second, a nuclear world such as we envisage will have long since had to make peace with plutonium. Ten tons of plutonium per day is mind-boggling. It is hard to conceive of the enterprise being conducted except in well-defined, permanent sites, and under the supervision of a special cadre -perhaps a kind of nuclear United Nations.

Thus we can hardly escape the energy demands, if it is indeed to may be an attention to detail, and impression that the price nuclear become the dominant energy system, a dedication of the nuclear cadre that goes much beyond what other technologies have demanded. It is only when one projects to an asymptotic nuclear future such as we have attempted that one recognizes the magnitude of the social problem posed by this particular technology.”

Clearly then despite the billions of dollars that has already been spent on LMFBR/IFR research & development, we are going to spend a whole lot more on the high breeding ratio IFR. . Barry this is what open science is about, asking tough, hard questions, and asking that the questions be answered before we believe.


George, You assurte, “the LFTR is a dead end, simply because we don’t have the fissile material needed to start these things up.”

Some time ago I went through an exercise in which I established the amount of RGP that was available for nuclear breeder startups and how many IFRs and LFTRs could be started. I drew on a paper titled, “S-PRISM Fuel Cycle Study: Future Deployment Programs and Issues,” and wrote a post titled, “S-PRISM Scalability: a Repose for Steven Kirsch.” I must add that unfortunately Mr. Kirsch has ignored my attempt to draw his attention to the issue. I wrote, “In S PRISM related study “S-PRISM Fuel Cycle Study: Future Deployment Programs and Issues,” suggested that as of the year 2000, four hundred tons of plutonium could be recovered from spent nuclear fuel. This in turn would provide enough plutonium to supply start up charges for twenty-two, 1520 MWe S-PRISM facilities with an output of 33,440 MWe. That is about 12 tons per 1 GWe of reactor capacity.

I pointed to the following discussion in Energy from Thorium,
“”Honzik” pointed to French research of epithermal/fast Thorium Molten Saalt Reactors. The French, modeling the use of transuranium materials from spent nuclear fuel, in a 1 GB reactor had calculated a need for 7.3 tons of fissile elements (87.5% of Pu (238Pu 2.7%, 239Pu 45.9% , 240Pu 21.5%, 241Pu 10.7%, and 242Pu 6.7%), 6.3% of Np, 5.3% of Am and 0.9% of Cm). Alternatively the reactor would require a start uo charge of 4.6 tons of U-233.

Lars reported that

The minimum for unity breeding from the French group is 1.5 tonnes u233 / GWe.

Alex P noted:

the french design has an only radial, not axial, blanket, so for comparison I’d think that the fissile start-up in a LFTR with a fully encompassing blanket can be at least one tonn of u-233 per GWe, or even lower

David LeBlanc noted:

The French TMSR design running without graphite moderator needs upwards of 5 tonnes of U233 or 8 or more tonnes of fissile Pu. They could drop this somewhat if they just wanted to barely break even but not very much since they’ll start losing too many neutrons that would migrate into the axial reflectors. In designs in which the blanket is nearly fully encompassing you can get by with much lower fissile concentrations. It is only speculation for now but based on early Oak Ridge studies using sphere within sphere designs I think we could probably get things down to 500 Kg of u233 or maybe even lower but 1000 kg is a fine for a conservative estimate. These designs with lower fissile concentration would also be fairly soft spectrums since the salt itself can do a modest job at moderating the neutrons.”

Even if we double David LeBlanc’s estimate we get a start up of 150 GWs That is from the RGP that was available 10 years ago. But that is not the end of our story. If we switch from LWRs to LFTRs we can start 50 GWs worth of LFTRs a year with the U-235 used to power LWRs. In a decade that would be 500 GWs. This is not all. We have also the U-235 and Pu-239 in nuclear weapons stockpiles to draw on. Clearly then finding the start charges for enough LFTRs to power the American economy will not be a problem.

The global stockpile of RGP is several times the American stockpile. From that stockpile alone enough RGP could be drawn to start as many as 500 IGW LFTRs. As many as 200 1GWe LFTRs can be started a year from enriched U-235 now globally used each year by LWRs. We can produce more enriched U-235 if we need too.

George Human beings have engaged in energy in garbage out economic practices ever since fire was invented during the old stone age. That is not going to change. We can keep up with energy demands, however, because we throw away enough thorium in mine tailings every year, to provide human energy needs. The solution is not to curtail economic growth, but to stop wasting thorium. Thorium is potentially a wonderful energy source. It can supply human society high levels of energy for millions of years. We also potentially have an efficient tool for extracting energy from thorium, the LFTR.


Gee Charles, appologies for being flippant, but this comment makes me think, perhaps we should stick with coal, take off a sweater and move a few degrees to higher latitudes :)


Charles, a typically detailed rejoinder that ignored my main point. Perhaps this is what PL was joking about. So be it, ill leave you to continue agonizing on these ‘troubling’ issues if you want, and meanwhile, I and many others will continue to work on helping to get the first IFR built.

…and to have you lecturing me on what science is about…well


Well Berry, You ignored the questions I raised, so we appear to be talking past each other. So I will look at what you said, and check it out.

Barry you stated, “All of these approaches have strong justification on sustainability, scalability and economic bases, especially compared to their perceived competitors, and we should not lose focus of this fact nor give a misleading impression that this is the case. I’m sure the vast majority of you are aware of this, as later comments on alternatives to nuclear fission by Charles B and Cyril R have elaborated, but the caution remains a standing item.”

So your simply assume that the IFR scalability problem does not exist on the basis of the theoretical possibility that a high breeding ration IFR is possible. But Barry it is no more than speculation to assume hat if something is theoretically possible it is practical. Further evidence is needed.

Secondly, you state, “the MIT/Berkeley proposal for using molten salt as a coolant only (the pebble fuel is conventional HTGR fuel) is a different concept compared to the ORNL MSR or the modern LFR, and of course the devil is in the detail. Until decent development work is done, it would be hard to make claims one way or another on the technical feasibility, relative costs, pinch points, potential show stoppers, etc.” In fact all of the major components of the AHTR have been tested separately. More importantly all of the components have been tested under reactor operating conditions. Thus AHTR development involves a great deal less risk than high breeding ratio IFRs that have never been tesated under reactor operating conditions.

You also note that the AHTR is not quite the same thing as a MSR. This is true but they two reactor types are closely related. The primary difference is that the nuclear ful goes inside the reactor graphite in the AHTR, while with MSRs the nuclear fuel is carried along with the coolant salts. This shift allows the AHTR salt handling mechanism to be simplified in comparison to the MSR. The lowers AHTR costs, and means fewer components will require development.

You state, “There is also a general question on the overall rationale for an advanced thermal system. The current generation of advanced LWRs will need to be one of the nuclear fission workhorses in the coming decades.” However Berry, we have an urgent need to lower reactor costs, and AHTRs use proven technologies, thus will be available quickly. Theoretically AHTRs can operate in a breeder range, but I prefer to not make a big deal of that. Rather the AHTR technology is a transitional technology that can burn more U-238 (or Th-232) in nuclear fuel than the the LWR can. Given the claims of the MIT Uranium study, we will have enough uranium for some time to come. We do agree that the once through fuel system is highly undesirable, but our agreement is not going to make the market buy our favored technology. Lower cost will, and the AHTR is likely to turn out to be cheaper to build than the LWR.

I am perfectly willing to accept the notion that fast reactors including the will play a role in the nuclear future, and I believe that Generation IV, and I see no reason why thorium and uranium cycle reactors cannot exist side by side. Were it not for our very great need for rapid scaleability I would not argue with you on this point, but I do not see an IFR path to 2050, while I do see a LFTR path.

Barry you argue, “Third, many of the numbers being used here for the IFR are simply not correct. There is a relationship between fissile content and reactor size, but not between fissile and breeding ratios (at least not in the way implied). In principle, a BR of 1.5 (not 1.05) can be achieved in a relatively large (1 GWe-sized) metal-fueled pool-design SFR with an inventory of 8 tonnes fissile, yielding a doubling time of 11 years.”

Here again I have to ask. “What is the breeding ratio of the proposed PRISM prototype?” I would also ask, “how much would it cost to develop a 1.20 breeding ratio prototype. How much would a 1.5 prototype cost? And how long will it take to reach a point where a 1.5 ratio prototype is possible?”

Barry you relie on “those engineers and scientists who worked on this technology for many decades, and understand the systems — their strengths, benefits, problems and outstanding issues — nor what data has been accumulated, tested and archived that is not public.” Secrecy does not lead to good science. Berry I have looked at the published reports from the same scientists and they do not support the claims I question. If your sources have access to data that is not in public, they should make an effort to make it public.
I must also ask why does the unpublished data of Argonne IFR researchers seem to contradict their published reports?

The fact that I respect you, Steve, Tom. George Stanford, and the Argonne research community does not mean that you are always right. Other scientists can and do disagree with the Argonne point of view, and the Argonne community during the 1960’s, and 70’s lead the United States down the path called the Clinch River Reactor. Even the Argonne community acknowledged later that the Clinch River Reactor was a big mistake. Of course that is what people from ORNL said all along.

Or argument would thus seem to be about more than the relative value of different nuclear technologies, it also seems to deal with how scientists should handel information that is important for public decisions. Should that information be made available to the public, or should it be kept private by scientists who are trusted to point the public to good decisions? The Clinch River fiasco tells me that should not be the case. I am glad to see that more information on the IFR is gong to be published in book form. Hopefully the books you note will resolve my questions. Perhaps by raising my questions, I will have a certain amount of input into these books.

Finally I am complete agreement with you that we agree on far more than we disagree on. But we do disagree on some matters, and in the thorium community it is OK to publicly talk about those disagreements and publicly attempt to resolve them. This is what I take to be the Open Science model. I would hope that we can operate on the same model.


We’ve got to read between the lines of what Barry suggested. The IFR it its most recent embodiment is a smaller reactor with intentional high leakage to avoid positive void and modular production size. (positive void coefficients does not mean unsafe reactors but are a killer to a reactor development; most countries won’t license it on principle, being haunted by Chernobyl).

I’ve no doubts that larger fast reactor cores with lower leakage can breed, and I think that’s what fast reactors should evolve to. But this does not appear to be the idea that Argonne or GE has. They want to build smaller lower breeding reactors.

However, contrary to fear mongering by people who don’t understand resource dynamics or what log normal distribution implies, I’ve seen no reason to believe mined uranium will run out even with extreme converter reactor buildout. So I don’t think it is a big problem. In fact I’ve learned at lot about sodium fast reactors recently and am starting to like them more and more. I do wonder if there is not an improvement to be made in a NaF-BeF2 or other fluoride coolant switch for the IFR as Forsberg suggested.

Far bigger problems are with the political and public support. There was one sodium fast reactor almost built here but the plug was pulled ostensibly for safety reasons. But actually it was public unacceptance of sodium and the politicians and companies involved eventually swayed to public opinion. Sodium has a bad image with people because everyone has done experiments with this as a kid in chemistry classes. People don’t know how reactors are controlled or what a PRACS stands for, but they know what sodium does when in contact with water.

Worryingly I’ve seen little reason to think the situation is any different now than 10 years ago.

Much more than a technology problem, we have an education problem.


Barry, I have located a Master’s thesis which reports research on the Breeding ratio of the AHTR. The thesis title is NEUTRONICS ANALYSIS OF A MODIFIED PEBBLE BED ADVANCED HIGH TEMPERATURE REACTOR by Jorge Abejón Orzáez. Orzaez reports:

“Using ORIGEN 2.2 and a thermal neutron spectra, for the ThO2 62% – 233UO2 2% – 0.01% 6Li composition, after 10 days in the reactor, the breeding ratio is 0.979 and after 270 days of decay of 233Pa into 233U without any neutron flux (power 0), the breeding ratio is 0.991.”

99.1% is not bad, and given that ORNL reports that the AHTR will cost only 55% of the costs of the IFR, it is understandable that some IFR backers might be upset by AHTR funding.


A possible site for a Prism?

The Canadian province of Saskatchewan has a agreement with GE Hitachi for work on SMR’s. Could this already include or be expanded to include the PRISM?

The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission while somewhat onerous to deal with is head and shoulders better than the NRC.

Bill Gates may want to give Saskatchewan a call as well. He is apparently looking for a site for his unit, Saskatchewan is a lot closer to Seattle than India or Russia.


Cyrl R

I’ve seen no reason to believe mined uranium will run out even with extreme converter reactor buildout.

I agree. Most of these claims are based on current known reserves, current exploration techniques and current mining techniques.

The starting point should be the mass of uranium in the Earth’s continental crust, the rate of improvement in exploration technology, mining technology, and the rate that mining industry makes lower and lower ore grades economically viable. We are already mining uranium by in situ leaching with no excavation required. Geophysical exploration methods are findig uranium targets at 400 me depth with no surface expression of the ore body. In another two decades we’ll be able to find more an more high grade uranium deposits with no surface expression and mine economic orebodies with lower concentrations. The improvementw will continue for centuries just as the improvement in exploration and mining ofd metals and minerals has been improving for the past tens of thousands of years. So the starting point for this exercise is: how much uranium is in the Earths continental crust. (And, yes, of course there will be come a time when uranium can be extracted economically from sea water.

Here’s a quick rough calculation (could be wrong)

Earth’s Crust; mass; 1.37E+23 kg
Earth’s Crust; density; 2.7 kg/m3
Uranium; concentration; 2.7 ppm
Uranium; density; 2.70E-06 kg/m3
Uranium; mass; 3.69E+17 kg
Uranium; weight (approx); 3.69E+14 t

I agree with Cyrl R. On the basis of uranium resources and the most optimistic rate of rollout of Gen III nuclear, and the latest date that Gen IV is likely to be economically viable for large scale roll out, I am not convinced we have a major problem with uranium resources for a lomg time.

Therefore, we should focus outr efforts on trying to get Gen III (or enhanced Gen II if more economic) to be acceptable (especially economically).


Charles Barton,

given that ORNL reports that the AHTR will cost only 55% of the costs of the IFR

Is ther an authoritative source for the cost estimates? What is the uncertainty on those estimates? Who did them? Were they done by researchers or by qualified cost estimators?

We saw that Gemasolar cost increased by a factor of four in just four years. I’d expect any cost estimates for Gen IV, by optimistic enthusiasts, at this stage will turn outr to be underestimates by in the order of a factor of ten.

Therefore, once again, I’d suggest we focus on working out how best to get Gen II and or Gen III rolled out.



A possible site for a Prism?

The Canadian province of Saskatchewan has a agreement with GE Hitachi for work on SMR’s. Could this already include or be expanded to include the PRISM?

I perceive a few problems with that suggestion:

1. Why would Canada want to encourage development of a non-Canadian NPP? ( know it’s smaller but …)

2. USA and other countries have plenty of money to demnstrate it and develop it, so why should Canada divert its development teams from focusining on its own market ready product the Enhanced CANDU 6.

The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission while somewhat onerous to deal with is head and shoulders better than the NRC.

Yes. I agree. This is one of the main reasons I keep thinking Candu 6 may be Australia’s best option. I suspect the cost of implementing a regulatory regime that is suitable for our small economy will be much less if we followed the Canadian rather then the US nuclear regulatory regime. The US system will always be onerous, will always get more onerous, will always change the rules and the costs will continually increase for a small economy like Australia. Canada’s economy is closer to our size (about double) and we have many other similarities. I feel it is potentially a better fit.

I recognise there are many other reasons for going with the US system, as UAE and many other countries have done. But Canada has successfully implemented Candus in many other countries: China, Korea, India, Argentina, Romania, Hungry (off the top of my head). Most are smaller economies like ours. So there is a long track record of success in small economies.

Another reason I like the Candu is it is a good size to slot into the Australian grid, especially in NSW. The prism would be even better as long as its LCOE is no higher, but I doubt that is likely to be the case for decades. Other reasons I like the Candu for Australia are its flexibility, on line refueling and proven high life-time capacity factors (eg Wolsung, Korea).


Further to my comment about the Candu being a good size to slot into our grid, the Candu 6 is about 700 MW, whereas the later NSW coal units have standardised on 660 MW. Most of the later coal units in Victoria are about 500 MW. In Queensland Kogan Creek is 1 x 780MW all others are smaller than 450 MW. So I suspect the Candu would slot into NSW and the SE Queensland grid with out extensive grid midifications. I suspect Victoria, who reckon they have the best grid, could handle it too.


While the Forsberg/Peterson/Williams paper linked up thread makes a good starter case for high temperature reactors (and there are other industrial reasons to desire inexpensive high temperature process heat), even AHTR isn’t ready for a demonstation yet, based upon my reading of a talk given by a PNNL researcher here.

[Yhis has proven to be quite a useful thread. Please keep the comments coming.]


Thanks, Charles Barton, for showing that even the IFR still needs a lot of engineering and R & D, and doesn’t have a high enough breeding ratio, to get us to 2050. Maybe 2100, but not 2050. So, there WILL be a massive economic contraction now through 2050. In terms of net energy, total peak fossil fuel energy provided is NOW, even counting coal and tarsands. The LFTR is even less promising than the IFR, and extracting that much plutonium from spent fuel and warheads to start some up would be a massive proliferation hazard. As for Gen-III, we currently consume 65,000 tons of uranium a year, but only mine 40,000 tons. The difference is material from bombs, called “Megatons to Megawatts.” This program is scheduled to end in 2013. So, there could be an imminent uranium shortage. According to Dr. Dittmar, there isn’t even enough uranium for the 370 GWe of light water reactors around the world today 2013 through 2030. I guess we’ll just have to adjust our economy to function on less consumption, and to thrive while shrinking rather than growing. This is not necessarily a bad thing, and could allow us to emerge more efficient and less obese in the long run.


The way a global energy contraction will work is that the people who get to become less obese already have their ribs showing.



I doubt we will run short of uranium in the foreseeable future. We mine what we need. We always have and always will. If we want more we go looking for more and find more. Australia’s know reserves of economically recoverable uranium have doubled in the last decade (ABARE, 2011, p 8: ). And we’re not even trying very hard. Nor is the rest of the world. Most of Australia precludes uranium exploration or mining. Furthermore, we’re only looked at the surface. Geophysical exploration methods will improve as time goes on. We’re shooting neutinos through the rock from Switzerland to Italy and detecting them. So there is no guessing how far geophysical exploraton techniques will advance in the coming decades.

I’ve corrected and extended the figures above to address your concern about a shortage of uranium:

Earth’s Continental Crust; mass; 2.17E+22 kg
Earth’s Continental Crust; density; 2.7 kg/m3
Uranium; concentration; 2.7 ppm
Uranium; density; 2.70E-06 kg/m3
Uranium; mass; 5.86E+16 kg
Uranium; weight; 5.75E+13 tonne

Proportion ultimately recoverable; 0.001
Tonnes of mineable uranium; 5.75E+10 tonne
Annual consumption; 60,000 tonne
years at current consumption rate; 1.28E+06 year
Years if consumption incrased x 1000; 1.28E+03 year

That is 1280 years of uranium consumption at 1000 times the current consumption rate.

The greatest uncertainty in this approach is my pure guess about the proportion of the uranium in the Earth’s Continental Crust that will be ultimately recoverable. The above figures assume 1/1000th of the total uranium in the Earth’s Continental Crust will be recoverable eventually. Perhaps that’s optimistic. Choose your guess.

Even if you disagree with my figures, I hope this may suggest to you and other readers that it is wrong to base the estimate of years of recoverable uranium on the currently known resources.


The MIT Future of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle report says this about Uranium resources:

uranium resources will not be a constraint for a long time

The cost of uranium today is 2 to 4% of the cost of electricity. Our analysis of uranium mining costs versus cumulative production in a world with ten times as many LWRs and each
LWR operating for 60 years indicates a probable 50% increase in uranium costs.

Click to access nuclear-fuel-cycle.pdf

Dittmar is not an expert or authority on uranium resources. He is, however, a well known anti-nuclear campaigner.

There are good reasons to progress advanced reactors ASAP but short to medium term uranium shortage is not one of them.


I don’t share George’s pessimism, for two reasons.
1. Gen II and Gen III reactors will make up the bulk of the reactor fleet for many years to come, so the need for high multiplier factors in Gen IV reactors is less immediate.
2. For this to be true only requires that a single restraint be loosened: uranium supply.

Not everybody will agree with me that uranium is available, at an affordable price, for many years to come, so I will explain.

Page 16 of Barry’s book “Why Vs Why – Nuclear power”.

“At the present levels of nuclear power, the cheap 5 million tonnes will last for about another 80 years.”

[At less than $130 per kg]
Page 17:

” …the oceans contain 4.5 billion tonnes of uranium. Even today, we have the technology to extract uranium from seawater at a cost of less than $300 a kilo.”

Clearly, the only impediment is cost, not availability of U.

When Gen IV NPP’s are available, whatever their design(s), is thus a bit irrelevant to this century’s debate, especially in the context of actions which could/should commence RIGHT NOW, this decade.

The only impediments to rapid decarbonisation of our electricity and process heat industries are thus political and social, not engineering practicality. Endless hand-wringing about which variant on the theme of energy-from-the-atom is optimal is not critical or even important. That kind of issue is resolved during the pre-design stage of the projects.

Political determination and social acceptance are clearly the two factors which warrant our best efforts and highest priorities.

That is why it is imperative that the untruths of the Caldicotts of the world be answered in terms which are understood by lay folk – that’s the social acceptance side of the debate. The political debate appears to be lost most resoundingly due to the salesmanship of the well-intentioned but misguided dreamers who offer an unachievable future based on inadequate technologies such as wind and sunlight.

Don’t get me wrong here: I’m an engineer and enjoy a technical challenge as much as any other engineer, but the reason for the lack of growth in NPP’s as against coal, gas, wind and solar is not engineering – it is due to lack of political will founded on society’s ignorant non-acceptance of any form of NPP.

Perhaps if the medical profession pushed NPP’s as an alternative to annual megadeaths through particulate air pollution… now I’m really dreaming. Why would doctors worry about the odd additional million avoidable deaths each year? At least they would be perceived by the public as being disinterested experts and we need as many disinterested, trusted experts as possible.

Perhaps Till, when he has his meeting with Obama, should be accompanied by the heads of the NIH and the AMA.


More evidence that Australia should get NP that can burn thorium. A rare earths processing plant in Whyalla SA should produce 20,000t a year of thorium oxide as a byproduct. The mine is mainly for phosphate in the NT outback.

Click to access 08_ARAFURA_Radiation%20and%20its%20management.pdf

Some easy-to-read interesting info on naturally occurring radioactive isotopes. I understand thorium and rare earths are left in the tailings dump at Olympic Dam SA due to lack of commercial opportunities. Other copper-gold mines out that way (eg Prominent Hill) are discarding uranium. We’ve got plenty of U and Th just need to get the processing costs down.


Political decisions in the west are 90% based on emotion and 10% on reason. Most problems are just a symptoms of this, so what’s really needed is a new age of enlightenment.

The article is a little hard on MSR, which also ran successfully for several years.
There’s no need to put all your eggs in one basket, and there would be more than enough private capital to pursue several Gen4 designs. What’s important is the political will. Germany set a bad precedence of how billion dollar assets can be made worthless with the scratch of a pen. Regime uncertainty is the reason why private investors cannot fund such projects, even though the demand for long term investments is huge, e.g. from pension funds, insurance companies, etc.


George, “The LFTR is even less promising than the IFR, and extracting that much plutonium from spent fuel and warheads to start some up would be a massive proliferation hazard.”

Your claim that RGP constitutes a proliferation risk is down right silly. RGP is not weapons usable because of its high radiation levels and heat. Test of Fuel Grad plutonium devices in the 1950’s and 1960’s convinced British and American Weapons designers that RGP was not going to prove satisfactory for weapons use.

Proliferation is the boogie man of the anti nuclear crowd. If the word proliferation is uttered, children are expected to shake with fear and to stop thinking. It always gets me how ignorant you anti nuclear nay sayers are of the weapons development facts. The fact is that several royal roads to nuclear weapons development already exist, and they are neither technically challenging or expensive, as Pakistan, North Korea, South Africa and Iran have demonstrated. The IAEA notes proliferation barriers with thorium cycle reactors including the LFTR that would make its choice over proven routs unlikely. LFTRs do not need to breed at a more than one to one breeding ratio in order to produce sustainable electricity and if you begin to withdraw U-233 to build weapons, you also begin to sacrifice your reactor,

A RGP LFTR or IFR start up would eliminate one of the biggest nuclear waste issues, Gorge don’t you want to solve the nuclear waste problem. As I have pointed out, a LFTR Start up (or an IFR start up) could draw on existing U-235 and Pu-239 stockpiles now used in nuclear weapons. George don’t you want to get rid of nuclear weapons and the fissionable material used to manufacture them?

George, you make the statement. “The LFTR is even less promising than the IFR.” But you have not really demonstrated that this is true. It is quite possible to produce the fissionable materials needed to start all of the LFTRs needed to support 100% of a much expanded human energy economy by 2050. One way of doing this would be to put IFRs to the rask of producing U-233 from thorium. Of course conventional methods, like mining uranium and processing and enriching it could work as well.

You appear to believe in the silly notion that by changing the human lifestyle to eliminate energy use, all our energy problems will be solved. Meanwhile a few billion people in China and India are working day and night to increase their own energy use. George, what are you going to do, if humanity does not accept your low energy formula?


Peter, the source is Status of Preconceptual Design of the Advanced High-Temperature Reactor (AHTR) ORNL/TM-2004/104.

“The potential cost of the AHTR is estimated based upon cost information for the S-PRISM62 and the GT–MHR.63 The reference AHTR design produces 2400 MW(t) from a reactor vessel with the same diameter as the 1000 MW(t) S-PRISM and slightly larger diameter than the 600 MW(t) GT–MHR.

This economic study considered two variations of the AHTR—an AHTR–IT version with a core outlet temperature of 800°C and an electrical power output of 1145 MW(e), and an AHTR–VT version with an outlet temperature of 1000°C and an electrical power output of 1300 MW(e). Table 8.1 summarizes the results of the cost analysis, showing the relative cost of the AHTR compared with the S-PRISM and GT-MHR.

From the perspective of an economist, the potential for improved economics is an expected consequence of the economy of scale. The AHTR electrical output is approximately four times that of the other reactors but with similar physical size and complexity. The potential for improved economics compared with LWRs, for a plant of the same size, is a consequence of higher efficiencies, higher power cycle power density, a low-pressure containment, and the complete elimination of active safety equipment.

Should the AHTR be scaled down to IFR size, it would be even smaller, hence the cost advantage would still hold although probably in a lesser proportion.


Reactor Grade Plutonium (RGP) has too many even numbered plutonium isotopes that make so many neutrons sponteneously continuously from spontaneous fission, that you can’t make a bomb out of it. It will rip itself apart before it can properly fission. IF you even get to make it, since the Pu238 will likely burn your weapon apart and if you breathe it in you’ll succomb to radiation sickness very rapidly.

LFTRs can start up on RGP. The reason for this is that they can switch rapidly to the Th-U233 cycle to make up for RGPs poor performance in more thermal spectrum reactors. So even though the fuel is not as good as for an IFR, the LFTR can breakeven on breeding with it with a much smaller inventory of RGP.

The LFTR can even run on thorium for 25 years without online fuel processing by starting up on about 6 tonnes of RGP per GWe and using thorium as the only fertile. This then makes high quality U233 but without the proliferation hazard (since no fuel processing is available at the reactor at all). This allows us to transition to a thorium economy by using a second generation LFTRs that use the U233 by fluorinating it out of the spent fuel from the above ‘once-through’ LFTR. This can be done by safeguarded teams of reprocessors (not that U233 can be made into an effective weapon; too many delayed neutrons from U233 and U234 that goes with it, same as RGP).

Since we won’t run out of mined uranium the IFR can also be started up on low enriched uranium. So I conclude that both LFTR and IFR can be used for large scale transition to Gen IV, and both can deal with the proliferation issues. The LFTR can be smaller while still isobreeding with a lower fissile inventory and eat higher TRUs because it doesn’t make any, which makes it a more productive waste-eater than a small IFR that has a low breeding ratio. In other words if we want small IFRs we’ll need a lot of mined uranium (but still much less than LWRs). Not that I care much about it; I’m more of a ‘bigger is better’ kind of guy and am fine with big LFTRs and IFRs.


Could somebody fix all of the grammatical errors in Steve’s letter, and maybe get the font size consistent while they are at it? Why didn’t anyone edit such an important letter?


Just watched the short film. Should have hired a PR firm. Called the IFR an “incinerator.” Use old film clips from the 60’s of nuclear control rooms (think Homer Simpson). Graphics looked like Lego building blocks.

Unlike professional Nissan Leaf commercials, I’d be embarrassed to share it …sigh …although I just signed the petition, oh and the link in the email from the White House is broken ….

Most people don’t make most decisions with their minds.


Up thread we learned that the US DoE is pushing two small modular reactors for the near term prospects. Which two? I can easily think of two Gen III designs but there are also two Gen IV designs. Anybody know?


Bill Gates is not the right person to ask because I saw him on TV confuse spent fuel with depleted uranium. Bill Gates has invested a large amount of money in fossil fuel.

For many people, it helps a great deal if you explain natural background radiation to them.


Once again the Canadian province of Saskatchewan has an agreement with GE Hitachi to work on SMR’s. The premier Brad Wall has stated he is a supporter of that technology. His province is where a lot of the worlds uranium originates.

With a bit of effort from GE Hitachi, I ‘m sure a Prism project could be built there.

Lotsa of talented nuclear engineers are now available in Canada as Atomic Energy Canada Ltd is very likely to be reduced to a skeleton staff shortly. Canada’s new neoconservative majority government paid a politically connected Big Oil engineering firm $75 million to take over the $23B asset in AECL. To all intents a purposes the ancient Gen 2 Candu tech is dead now with only a few minor mostly bookkeeping R&D efforts in a contrived attempt to sell the Candu 6E.

A utility would be foolish indeed to take a flyer on the Gen 2 Candu, when the Indians are supporting and developing their Gen III+ PHWR version and a far superior Gen III+ product is available with the AP-1000 at nearly the same price.


Leave a Reply (Markdown is enabled)

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s