by Steve Kirsch
"In the decade from 1984 to 1994, scientists at Argonne National Laboratory developed an advanced technology that promised safe nuclear power unlimited by fuel supplies, with a waste product sharply reduced both in radioactive lifetime and amount. The program, called the IFR, was cancelled suddenly in 1994, before the technology could be perfected in every detail. Its story is not widely known, nor are its implications widely appreciated. It is a story well worth telling, and this series of articles does precisely that."
--- excerpt from Plentiful Energy and the IFR story by Charles Till
Why it matters
To prevent a climate disaster, we must eliminate virtually all coal plant emissions worldwide in 25 years. The best way and, for all practical purposes, the only way to get all countries off of coal is not with coercion; it is to make them want to replace their coal burners by giving them a plug-compatible technology that is less expensive. The IFR can do this. It is plug-compatible with the burners in a coal plant (see Nuclear Power: Going Fast). No other technology can upgrade a coal plant so it is greenhouse gas free while reducing operating costs at the same time.
The bottom line is that without the IFR (or a yet-to-be-invented technology with similar ability to replace the coal burner with a cheaper alternative), it is unlikely that we’ll be able to keep CO2 under 450ppm because coal plants are unlikely to switch until there is a compelling economic alternative.
Today, the IFR is the only technology with the potential to displace the coal burner. That is why restarting the IFR is so critical and why Jim Hansen has listed it as one of the top 5 things we must do to avert a climate disaster. Without eliminating coal emission, the sum total of all of our other climate mitigation efforts will not matter.
To meet 450ppm, we must install about 13,000 GWe of new carbon-free power over the next 25 years. That number was calculated by Nathan Lewis at CalTech, but others such as Saul Griffith have independently dervied a very similar number and White House Science Advisor John Holdren has used a similar number in his presentations. That means we must install 1 GWe per day of clean power every single day for the next 25 years.
We are nowhere close to that installation rate with renewables alone. For example, in 2008, the average power delivered by solar worlwide was only 2 GWe (which is to be distinguished from the peak solar capacity of 13.4GWe). So after decades of renewable installations, we are still 12,998 GWe short with 25 years to go. That is why every renewable expert at a recent Aspen Institute Forum on the Environment agreed that nuclear must be part of the solution.
Nuclear has always been the world's largest source of carbon free power. In the US, for example, even though we haven't built a new nuclear plant in the US for 30 years, nuclear still supplies 70% of our clean power!
Nuclear can be installed very rapidly; much more rapidly than renewables. For example, about two thirds of the currently operating 440 reactors around the world came online during a 10 year period between 1980 and 1990. So our best chance of meeting the required installation of new power goal and saving the planet is with an aggressive nuclear program. Unlike renewables, nuclear generates base load power, reliably, regardless of weather. Nuclear also uses very little land area.
The IFR is our best nuclear technology. DOE did a study in 2001-2002 of 19 different reactor designs on 27 different criteria. The IFR ranked #1. Over 242 experts from around the world participated in the study. It was the most comprehensive evaluation of competitive nuclear designs ever done.
How does the US expect to be a leader in clean energy by ignoring our best nuclear technology? Nobody has been able to answer that question.
IFRs are better than conventional nuclear in every dimension. Here are a few:
1. Efficiency: IFRs are 100 times more efficient than conventional nuclear. It extracts nearly 100% of the energy from nuclear material. Today's nuclear reactors extract less than 1%. So you need 1 ton of actinides each year to feed an IFR (we can use existing nuclear waste for this), whereas you need 100 tons of freshly mined uranium each year to extract enough material to feed a conventional nuclear plant.
2. Unlimited power forever: Fast reactors with reprocessing are so efficient that our existing actinide resources will power the entire planet forever (the Sun will consume the Earth before we run out of material to fuel fast reactors). If we just limited ourselves to the uranium waste on hand (the depleted uranium left over from the uranium enrichment process), we can still run the planet for the next 700 years without doing any new mining of uranium.
3. Exploits our largest energy resource: In the US, there is 10 times as much energy in the depleted uranium (DU) that is just sitting there than there is coal in the ground. This DU waste is our largest natural energy resource…but only if we have fast reactors. Otherwise, it is just waste. With fast reactors, our nuclear waste becomes an energy asset worth about $70 trillion dollars…that’s trillion, not billion. An 11 year old child was able to figure this out from publicly available information in 2004.
4. Safety: The IFR is safer than conventional nuclear because the reactors safely shut down based on the laws of physics if something goes wrong. Today's third generation nuclear designs are very safe: 1 accident every 29 million reactor years. The IFR should be even safer due to the passive safety inherent in the design. Also, IFRs are much safer than the coal plants they replace. Coal power plants are estimated to kill 24,000 Americans per year, due to lung disease as well as causing 40,000 heart attacks per year. Commercial nuclear has never killed even a single member of the public in its entire 50 year operating history.
5. Proliferation resistant: The IFR is proliferation resistant because enrichment facilities are not needed to operate the plants. Instead IFR reprocessing just involves removing the fission products. The fissile/fertile ratio of the actinides is unchanged by this process. So IFR reprocessing cannot be used to enrich uranium or plutonium to make a bomb. One of the world’s top nuclear proliferation experts is strongly in favor of the IFR for this reason.
6. Consumes existing nuclear waste from nuclear reactors and weapons: Fast reactors consume our existing nuclear waste (from reactors and decommissioned weapons) and transforms it into material that after only 200 years is safe
7. Minimal waste: A 1 GWe IFR plant generates 1 ton of fission products each year that needs to be sequestered for 200 years until it is safe. A conventional nuclear plant of the same capacity creates 100 tons of "waste" each year some of which needs to be sequestered for 100,000 years until it is safe. If you powered your entire life from nuclear, the amount of waste you'd generate would be smaller than 1 soda can.
8. Nuclear material never needs to leave the site: Because it is so efficient, the IFR can operate totally self-contained for its entire operating life with no nuclear material entering or leaving the site.
9. The IFR creates a huge economic opportunity for the US to be the leading clean energy supplier to the world. Nuclear is the lowest cost scalable energy technology we have. The IFR is our best nuclear technology. If we focus on the IFR and invest in ramping up the volumes and reducing the cost, the IFR will be cheapest power source that every country will want everywhere. Our economy will benefit and our planet will too.
A brief history of the IFR
Invented in 1964 by a team of scientists at Argonne National Laboratory led by Charles Till, it first produced power in 1965 and ran for 30 years without incident.
In the 1970’s, the IFR was the top energy priority of the President, Congress, and the Atomic Energy Commission. In 1971 Nixon said, “Our best hope today for meeting the Nation's growing demand for economical clean energy lies with the fast breeder reactor.”
Despite a vote in the Senate to continue to fund the IFR, it was shut down by President Clinton in 1994 who said that the power was not needed. The scientists were ordered to dismantle the project so it could never be restarted and ordered not to talk to anyone about the project.
The IFR demonstrated that fast reactors can be operated for decades without incident or mishap and that the on-site reprocessing technique for removing the fisson products and putting the material back into the reactor works.
- Secretary of Energy Steven Chu
- White House Science Advisor John Holdren
- James Hansen, Director, NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies
- Charles Till, Former Associate Director Argonne National Laboratory
- Yoon Chang, former Associate Laboratory Director, Argonne National Laboratory
- John Sackett, former Associate Director, Argonne National Laboratory
- Ray Hunter, former Deputy Director of the Office of Nuclear Energy, Science and Technology in the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE)
- Leonard Koch, 2004 winner of the Global Energy International Prize (equivalent to the Nobel prize for energy)
- Congressman Jerry McNerney
- Congresswoman Anna Eshoo
- Congresswoman Jackie Speier
- Senator Lamar Alexander
- Senator Jeff Bingaman
- General Electric (who aleady has a plant design for the IFR ready to build)
- The American public, 59% of whom support nuclear power according to a March 2009 Gallup poll, despite zero PR by the nuclear industry.
- We do not know of any members of Congress who oppose restarting the IFR
- Environmental groups, in general, do not like nuclear power. For example, environmental groups in Germany got Germany to ban nuclear power. The result is that Germany is forced to build more new coal plants...the worst possible outcome for the environment and exactly the opposite of what the green groups wanted. The green case against nuclear is based largely on dogma and myth. See Mark Lynas: the green heretic persecuted for his nuclear conversion
- The climate crisis won’t wait. The sooner the IFR is perfected and deployed to eliminate emissions from coal plants, the better.
- Technology transfer. This technology is not trivial. No other country has been able to successfully replicate the IFR. If we wait 10 years, the people who built the IFR will all be dead. This could set the project back another decade.
- Ensures energy independence for the future. If the world ramps up conventional nuclear, we will run out of cheap nuclear fuel faster than many people think. For example, the Russians published a paper showing that in Russia, if they doubled their nuclear capacity in 20 years, they would run out of cheap nuclear fuel in as little as 25 years. (see the first paragraph of BN-800 as a New Stage in the Development of Fast Sodium-Cooled Reactors). With fast reactors in place, we never run out of fuel.
- Solves the waste problem now. Obama has said nuclear power will not be expanded in the US until we have a solution to the waste problem. The IFR provides that solution since today’s “waste” now becomes valuable “fuel” for our future fast reactors. The only real waste, the fission products, are small and only need be stored for about 200 years. This is a trivial challenge compared to the problem we face today.
- The genie is out of the bottle: refusing to play will not make fast reactors go away and will ultimately make us less safe. If we don’t re-start our fast reactor technology, then other countries will take the lead. France, Russia, India, Japan, and China all have fast reactor programs and all are either operating fast reactors now, or soon will be. The US shut down our last remaining fast reactor 15 years. Leadership is important for two reasons: 1) if we fail to lead, we will have missed taking advantage of our superior technology and missed a major economic opportunity as the premiere supplier of clean power technology and 2) the nuclear industry is in far safer hands if the US leads the way than if we abdicate. For example, if Chernobyl was a US reactor design, that accident could never have happened.
- No advantage to waiting. Fast nuclear is the future of nuclear power. These reactors are better in every dimension than today's nuclear designs. The sooner we transistion to it and standardize on it, and focus on getting the volumes up and the costs down, the lower our energy costs, the greater our impact on climate change, and the greater our chances of capturing the economic opportunity. There is no advantage to waiting to deploy these reactors. But we cannot deploy them until we build one first. We are way behind other countries. Russia has found that their fast reactors are their best performing reactors. They are selling 8 of their BN-600 fast reactors to China. So while the Russians are aggressively pursuing fast reactors and had no trouble getting $3.5B from the Russian government for their fast reactor program, the US hasn't spent a dime exploiting the world's best fast technology that we shelved in 1994 (which the Russians would love to get from us). That is not a winning strategy. It is a dumb strategy.
Just like the House bill allocates $10B for Carbon Capture and Sequestration, Congress should similarly give DOE $3B to construct a demonstration IFR plant to be completed in 5 years or less.
This would be a better use of public funds than CCS, because 1) there is a greater likelihood of a successful outcome with the IFR, and 2) the IFR solution is a superior solution to CCS because it reduces the cost of operating a power plant, rather than increasing it. Therefore, all countries will want to adopt it, rather than make excuses why they cannot adopt it.
My huffington piece provides a good overview and has links to primary sources like the DOE study showing that the IFR is the best nuclear design ever invented.
A powerpoint that gives you the gist in the first 15 slides:
Article about the history and significance of the IFR
A letter written to Senator Reid by the former #2 nuclear guy at DOE. Ray Hunter was at DOE for 30 years.
Jim Hansen says IFR is priority #4 of the 5 things we must do (see bottom of page 7)
Senator Kempthorne wrote into the Congressional Record which I couldn't have said any better myself:
But his greatest contribution, to both his discipline and to the world, lies in the development of the Integral Fast Reactor, the IFR. This inspired source of electrical power has the capability to achieve incredible efficiency in fuel use, while significantly lessening problems associated with reactor safety and nuclear waste. In 1986, the IFR showed that it can protect itself from overheating and meltdown. It does so through the natural physical properties of the materials used rather than by relying on operator intervention or an engineered safety system. The IFR was also designed to burn most of its own waste, as well as that of other reactors and the material from dismantled weapons. 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.
this well known UK environmentalist read about the IFR and he realized that the green groups had been pulling the wool over his eyes all these years. It is a great read if you have time
This is my catch all slide prezo of all IFR slides. Covers just about every objection, etc. It is LONG. If you've read all the above, this will be largely redundant. It goes into greater details.