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Home Dr. Charles Till

Plentiful Energy

The Story of the Integral Fast Reactor: The complex history of a simple reactor technology, with emphasis on its scientific bases for non-specialists

Authored by Charles E. Till, Yoon Il Chang

The Integral Fast Reactor (IFR) is a fast reactor system developed at Argonne National Laboratory in the decade 1984 to 1994. The IFR project developed the technology for a complete system; the reactor, the entire fuel cycle and the waste management technologies were all included in the development program. The reactor concept had important features and characteristics that were completely new and fuel cycle and waste management technologies that were entirely new developments. The reactor is a "fast" reactor - that is, the chain reaction is maintained by "fast" neutrons with high energy - which produces its own fuel. The IFR reactor and associated fuel cycle is a closed system. Electrical power is generated, new fissile fuel is produced to replace the fuel burned, its used fuel is processed for recycling by pyroprocessing - a new development - and waste is put in final form for disposal. All this is done on one self-sufficient site.

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PBS Frontline Interview

Dr. Charles Till is a nuclear physicist and was associate lab director at Argonne National Laboratory West in Idaho. He is co-developer of the Integral Fast Reactor, an inherently safe nuclear reactor with a closed fuel cycle.


Q: Talk about when you decided to go into nuclear power, and about the vision as it looked back then.

A: Oh, it was the field of the time. It was a field where you could be assured of doing something important, something for your time, is how I thought of it, that energy is the basis of our society, and nuclear energy was to be the way of the future.

 

Q: You saw this as an enormous benefit for mankind?

A: As a tremendous benefit for mankind, and that work, only the first work had been done on it.

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Letter to Tom Blees

Tom, I don't know how much you know about Hans Bethe. He was respected as having the most comprehensive knowledge of theoretical physics of any man alive, and was certainly the most admired by his colleagues. He passed away only a few years ago. The Washington Post noted, "Hans Bethe, a scrupulously open-minded Nobel Prize winner who was perhaps the last survivor of the scientific titans who created nuclear physics and nuclear weapons, died March 5 at his home in Ithaca, N.Y., near Cornell University. He was 98."

I, as I am sure many others did, learned a great deal from my contact with him. (He was on the Review Committee for the IFR from its inception to its termination.) He was as the quote said very open-minded, and if convinced his original position on some matter was not correct, changed his mind and said so, without hesitation or embarrassment. Once I was called upon to settle an argument to do with the IFR pyroprocess that had arisen in writing the committee report between Bethe and Manson Benedict, the founding chairman of the MIT nuclear engineering department. There was no way I was going to state my opinion directly, and choose a winner between these two very senior men who I respected so deeply. So I talked around the subject. In a matter of seconds Bethe spoke up, "Manson," he said,"I think I am prepared to concede."

My purpose in relating this is to say that in looking up the date of the Cisler medal for this short resume I came across Bethe's recommendation for the award that year, "In my opinion, this project (the Integral Fast Reactor) is the best fast reactor project that has ever been pursued."

A little more from the Post, "A participant in the postwar public debate over weapons policy, he appeared able to take strong stands without alienating his friends on the other side, and without depriving them of credit for their abilities and achievements. He was widely regarded as the conscience of the nuclear science community. When he first spoke in favor of limits on bomb testing, his impeccable reputation gave immediate credibility to that position."

There was no one whose opinion was held in higher regard at the top of the world's nuclear science community than Hans Bethe, and his often stated opinion over the ten years of the IFR may help give heart to those who may agree with him now.

 


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Charles Till

Charles Till was the longtime Associate Laboratory Director for Engineering Research at Argonne National Laboratory. Dr. Till directed civilian nuclear power reactor development at Argonne National Laboratory. This program, the largest by far in the U.S. in the last decades of the century, was devoted entirely to research and development of nuclear reactors for electrical power generation. About two thousand engineers, scientists and supporting staff, and the large complex of the facilities required for such R&D, were devoted to this work. For ten years, from 1984 to 1994, the work of this team was focused entirely on development of an Argonne brain-child, the Integral Fast Reactor. This technology promised an inherently safer reactor, a shorter-lived waste, and a limitless fuel supply.

Dr. Till was born and raised in Canada, and became a U.S. citizen in 1969.

Engineering Physics B. Eng.; 1956, University of Saskatchewan.
Physics M. Sc.; 1958, University of Saskatchewan.
Athlone Fellow.; 1958-60 (2 years of graduate study in U.K. for the top engineering graduates of the major Canadian universities.)
PhD; Engineering, Specialty Reactor Physics, 1960 Imperial College, University of London.
M.B.A.; Executive Program, 1976 University of Chicago.

National Research Council of Canada 1956-58.  Developed the standards device in use to this day for calibration of instruments for accurate humidity measurement.

United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority 1959. Physics calculations on Advanced Gas Cooled Reactors. (graphite moderated systems.)

Canadian General Electric, 1961 – 1963. In charge of the startup and startup physics measurements of NPD-2, (Nuclear Power Demonstration) the first of the CANDU reactors.

Argonne National Laboratory, 1963 to retirement in 1998. At Argonne initially studied plutonium fueling of the LWR, but in a year or so turned to development of the fast breeder reactor, his lifelong professional interest.

Entered Argonne as an Assistant Physicist. Promoted to Senior Physicist 1972. Over the years from 1963 promoted through the various supervisory ranks, becoming Director of the Reactor Physics Division (100 or so PhD level people and supporting staff) in 1973. In 1980 made Director of the Argonne Reactor Development Program in its entirety.

Had experience with all the main reactor types in use around the world.

Fellow of the American Nuclear Society, awarded the Walker Cisler Medal in 1994 for fast breeder reactor development, in particular for the Integral Fast Reactor.

National Academy of Engineering election in 1989, for the Integral Fast Reactor and for work earlier that established the systematics of the Doppler Effect in fast reactors.