Dear Secretary Chu:
We strongly agree with President Obama that the US needs to be the leader in clean energy technology. Unless we can quickly develop an economically attractive alternative to fossil fuel as the main source of our energy, our fossil reserves will continue to be depleted, and emissions of noxious pollutants will continue to grow.
Dr. R.K. Pachauri, Chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has stated that “nuclear energy is the best option to curb carbon emissions.”
Realistically, the only candidate source of the bulk of the energy that will be needed in the future is nuclear fission. Sadly, the United States is no longer a leading force in the safe evolution of that technology.
Today, according to the World Nuclear Association, there are there are 59 nuclear reactors under construction in 14 countries around the world, but only one of them is in the United States. Two are in Canada, and two are in Western Europe (one in Finland and the other in France, both built by Areva, a French company). All the rest are in Eastern Europe or Asia, which may soon lead the world in nuclear technology. Japan has 55 reactors and gets 35 percent of its electricity from nuclear energy, almost double the 19 percent we get here. The Japanese have two reactors under construction and plans for ten more by 2018. They are finding they can build a reactor, start to finish, in less than four years. That is less time than it takes an American reactor simply to get licensing approval from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
The world will need these current-generation reactors for a while, but at 0.6% resource utilization, they are not long-term viable.
To be the clean energy leader, we must be the leader in advanced nuclear power. We must aggressively invest in building and deploying the world’s best, most advanced nuclear technology.
We’ve already done the research. Over the past 30 years, our government has invested over $5 billion dollars in advanced nuclear research. It is the largest investment in a single energy technology that our nation has ever made.
That massive investment resulted in an advanced nuclear design known as the Integral Fast Reactor (IFR). In 2002, in the most comprehensive review of advanced nuclear designs that was ever done, the IFR was rated by an international panel of 242 nuclear experts as the best advanced nuclear reactor design.
So we have the technology to once again lead the world in advanced nuclear power. What we lack is the political will to deploy it.
The advantages of the IFR include:
• It can power the planet forever.
• General Electric believes that IFRs can produce power at lower cost than conventional nuclear power plants.
• IFRs generate minimal nuclear waste because the actinides are almost completely consumed.
• The used nuclear fuel from today's reactors is an excellent source of IFR fuel, while the long-lived components are transmuted into short-lived fission products.
• The waste from an IFR is much easier to safely store because the small amount of fission-product waste is only dangerous for a few hundred years (not a million years as some claim for today’s reactors)
• The IFR’s fuel reprocessing step never separates out pure plutonium. With the exception of South Korea, all of the major nuclear nations have aqueous reprocessing capability. From a proliferation standpoint, the world would be much safer if these nations used pyroprocessing for civilian nuclear power rather than separating plutonium for LWR recycle or for future mixed-oxide fast reactors.
• The IFR design is passively safe; if something goes wrong, the laws of physics guarantee that the reactor safely shuts itself down
Our spent nuclear fuel is currently considered a white elephant. By commercializing the IFR, we will have a technology that can turn this huge liability into our nation’s single largest energy asset by a wide margin; an energy asset that would have an economic value of well over $1 trillion dollars. Unlike our coal reserves, our current nuclear “waste” is an energy resource that is already mined and is just sitting there waiting to be used, so there is no environmental impact. The energy in it is more than 10 times larger than our coal reserves.
Other countries are aggressively pursuing fast reactors today. For example, Russia has been generating commercial power from a fast reactor for more than 30 years. They have found that their fast reactor is among their best performing, and they are now building commercial fast reactors for China.
Our best hope of restoring US leadership in clean energy technology is sitting on the shelf as a result of a 1994 decision to abort the IFR project. Mr. Secretary, we respectfully suggest that it is time for you to recommend to the President that he revisit the decision to cancel the IFR.
We believe that this technology should be treated as a “Manhattan project” to restore US leadership in clean energy technology and that it be given the necessary resources, priority, and attention commensurate with its importance.
In summary, nuclear power is the most important energy source for curbing carbon emissions, the IFR has been determined by an unbiased international panel of experts to be the world’s best advanced nuclear technology, and if we want to be the world leader in clean energy, we should be pursuing it aggressively.