Below is the foreword I wrote, on invitation of Chuck Till and Yoon Chang, for the book “Plentiful Energy” (I included a shorter version in my review of the book on Amazon).
In this short essay, I draw an analogy between the IFR and the Wright brothers’ 1903 ‘ ‘Flyer’. The idea is that successful technology — especially a revolutionary design — is built on the back of many learning-by-doing failures. Yet, once the initial problems have been solved, the remaining pathway for the technology’s development is one of incremental (but often rapid) evolutionary improvements.
I suspect that with just a few more years of serious investment in RD&D, the LFTR ‘Flyer’ could also launch. The molten-salt thorium reactor concept is extremely appealing, and the ORNL prototype, which ran in the mid- to late-1960s, showed real promise. In my view the Th232-U233 fuel cycle would make an excellent complement to the U238-Pu239 fuel cycle offered by the IFR, and both reactor types hold the promise of safe and inexhaustible energy.
Foreword to: Plentiful Energy – The book that tells the story of the Integral Fast Reactor
On a breezy December day in 1903 at Kitty Hawk, N.C., a great leap forward in the history of technology was achieved. The Wright brothers had at last overcome the troubling problems of ‘inherent instability’ and ‘wing warping’ to achieve the first powered and controlled heavier-than-air flight in human history. The Flyer was not complicated by today’s standards – little more than a flimsy glider – yet its success proved to be a landmark achievement that led to the exponential surge of innovation, development and deployment in military and commercial aviation over the 20th century and beyond.
Nonetheless, the Flyer did not suddenly and miraculously assemble from the theoretical or speculative genius of Orville and Wilbur Wright. Quite the contrary – it was built on the back of many decades of physical, engineering and even biological science, hard-won experience with balloons, gliders and models, plenty of real-world trial-and-error, and a lot of blind alleys. Bear in mind that every single serious attempt at powered flight prior to 1903 had failed. Getting it right was tough!
Yet just over a decade after the triumphant 1903 demonstration, fighter aces were circling high above the battlefields of Europe in superbly maneuverable aerial machines, and in another decade, passengers from many nations were making long-haul international journeys in days, rather than months.
What has this got to do with the topic of advanced nuclear power systems, I hear you say? Plenty. The subtitle of Till and Chang’s book “Plentiful Energy” is “The complex history of a simple reactor technology, with emphasis on its scientific bases for non-specialists”. The key here is that, akin to powered flight, the technology for fully and safely recycling nuclear fuel turns out to be rather simple and elegant, in hindsight, but it was hard to establish this fact – hence the complex history. Like with aviation, there have been many prototype ‘fast reactors’ of various flavors, and all have had problems.
Stretching the analogy a little further, relatively inefficient balloons, airships and gliders were in use for many decades before powered flight became possible, even though people could see that better ways of flying really did exist (they only had to look up in the sky, at the birds). Powered aircraft allow people to travel hundreds of times faster, and more safely, than lighter-than-air devices. Similarly, the type of nuclear reactors we have used commercially for decades, although far superior to other methods of generating electricity, have harnessed but a tiny fraction of the potential locked away in uranium. To get at that, you need a very different approach – a nuclear fission Flyer. Enter the integral fast reactor (IFR).
This wonderful book by fast-reactor pioneers Charles Till and Yoon Chang, two of the foundational developers of the IFR during the fabulously productive years of research and development at the Argonne National Laboratory from the 1980s to early 1990s, explains in lucid terms the historical, philosophical and technical basis for truly sustainable nuclear energy. It’s quite a story.
Imagine a reactor that passively responds to critical stressors of the kind that befell Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima by shutting down without human operators even needing to intervene. Or one that includes a secure recycling and remote fabrication system that, almost Midas like, is able to turn uranium or even old ‘nuclear waste’ from contemporary reactors into an inexhaustible (and zero-carbon) fuel, as well as simultaneously solving the socio-political problem of long-term disposal.
Once you’ve read this book, you’ll understand how this technological wizardry is performed and why other options – those alternatives to the Flyer – never quite worked out. Moreover, you’ll have a much deeper appreciation of the true potential of fission energy in a low-carbon and energy-hungry world – and an insight into what has stopped it reaching its potential, to date. There is something here for the non-specialist scientist and engineer, but also for the historian, social scientist, and media commenter. It is wrapped up in a grand narrative and an inspiring vision that will appeal to people from all walks of life – indeed anyone who cares about humanity’s future and wants to leave a bright legacy for future generations that is not darkened by the manifold problems associated with extracting and burning ever dwindling and environmentally damaging forms of fossil carbon, like coal, oil and gas.
For the sake of averting crises of energy scarcity, mitigating the ever mounting global problem of anthropogenic climate change, as well as drastically reducing the pressure on society to make huge swathes of productive landscapes hostage to biofuels and other diffuse forms of energy collection, we need to continue the historical impetus towards ever more energy-dense fuels. It’s time for the Integral Fast Reactor ‘Flyer’ to take flight, because, as Till and Chang explain, the sky is the limit…