Nuclear Townhall, September 8, 2010
Tom Blees is living proof that you don’t have to be overly degree credentialed to make an impact in the technology world. He spent the first twenty years of his working life as captain of a fishing boat on the Bering Sea. Then along with his wife, he founded a charitable organization to provide safe water supplies to villagers in Central America.
In the course of fundraising for the project, he stumbled upon the Integral Fast Reactor (IFR), a nuclear technology once under development in this country but zeroed out during the Clinton Administration. Blees eventually became convinced that the IFR is the key to meeting both the world’s energy and fresh water needs.
After a decade of research, Blees published Prescription for the Planet, a book that has had a large impact in introducing people to advanced nuclear technology. A resident of the Sacramento area, Blees now finds himself participating in international conferences and debating such anti-nuclear luminaries as Princeton University professor Frank von Hippel. We caught up with him at his home last week:
NTH: What is an Integral Fast Reactor and how does it differ from our present un-integrated, not-as-fast reactors?
BLEES: Today’s water-moderated reactors utilize less than 1 percent of the energy in mined uranium. Fast reactors do not attempt to moderate the neutrons, however. Because of this, they can eventually burn up nearly 100 percent of the fuel. The can consume both nuclear weapons material and spent nuclear fuel (usually mislabeled "nuclear waste").
After all that is gone they can burn the depleted uranium in mine tailings. We have already taken so much uranium out of the ground that integrated fast reactors could supply all of mankind’s energy needs for the nearly a millennium. Every nation could be energy independent with virtually unlimited clean energy.
NTH: What other advantages or disadvantages are there?
BLEES: IFRs are passively safe, meaning that in worst-case scenario accidents the laws of physics would shut down the reactor without any operator intervention. This has been proven in actual tests. The reactors are modular so they can be mass-produced in factories and assembled on site. Throughout the fuel cycle nothing that could be used for weapons is ever separated. An IFR site can also breed fuel from depleted uranium so you end up with more fuel than you have consumed.
It’s about the closest thing to a perpetual motion machine as you’re going to get.
NTH: Can you recount for us briefly the saga of why we abandoned this technology?
BLEES: When you consider the promise of this technology, the temptation is to imagine that fossil fuel companies must have been behind the killing it. After all, IFRs promise to put them all out of business. But it seems that the death of the project was more due to political expediency, ignorance, fear and disinformation. During his 1992 campaign, Bill Clinton promised to end what he deemed unnecessary nuclear power research. Senator John Kerry spearheaded the drive in the Senate. I recount the sordid details in Prescription for the Planet. Ironically, both Clinton and Kerry now pose as white knights of the climate change battle, yet they were probably the most responsible for burying the very technology that could have revolutionized the world’s energy systems and eliminated greenhouse gas emissions.
Had the project been allowed to continue, we’d be building IFRs by the hundreds today.
NTH: What’s the current state of the technology? Japan and Russia are going ahead with it, right? And GE-Hitachi has a design that they will probably be selling to other countries?
BLEES: Japan’s fast reactor research has been stalled for several years, but they are pursuing what is arguably an inferior system, using oxide fuel instead of the metal fuel that we developed for our IFR. Metal fuel has many considerable advantages, including safety and ease of fabrication.
Russia has one commercial-scale IFR that operated very reliably for several years and has plans to build more in Russia and in China. Their design also uses oxide fuel but they may be able to convert it to metal. India will soon be firing up their first commercial-scale IFR reactor and has plans to build more.
What would be beneficial is if the US would share our IFR technology with these countries to promote standardization and safety.
NTH: There are several fascinating little gems in your book. Why does there seem to be so much misinformation floating around about energy and nuclear power?
BLEES: Well, there’s a lot of visceral fear of anything with the word “nuclear.” People still don’t appreciate the trauma millions of children went through during the “duck and cover” drills of the Fifties and Sixties. Many people of that generation remained vocal anti-nuclear activists for life.
At the same time there are people who’ve made a good living stoking fear of nuclear power. Nuclear power is like religion. People don’t believe themselves capable of understanding its mysteries, so they trust “experts” to tell them what to think. The trouble is, the nuclear “experts” representing environmental groups are ideologues with their own anti-nuclear agendas. It takes intellectual honesty to look at a new technology like the IFR and admit that it’s completely different and acceptable, even desirable.
NTH: Of course there’s one little piece of information that doesn’t emerge until the end of your book and that is that the IFR will require uranium to be enriched up to 20 percent. That could be perceived by some as approaching the territory of bomb material. Would you anticipate any opposition to IFRs from anti-proliferation groups on these grounds?
BLEES: 20 percent isn’t even close to bomb-grade material and the fuel isn’t actually enriched in the sense that light water reactor fuel is enriched. It will always be contaminated with fission products and a mix of actinides and troublesome isotopes so that it can’t be used for making nuclear weapons.
NTH: There’s a certain Sixties flavor to your book. You’re very down on business and accuse them of wanting to do nothing but extract profits from the public. You want to solve all this by setting up an organization called GREAT – the Global Rescue Energy Alliance Trust – that will take this technology and spread it across the planet in a benevolent fashion. Isn’t this the same mistake all Utopians make – that if we just set up some new idealized organization, we can eliminate all the human traits that make our current world imperfect?
BLEES: Well, since I set out to propose the best possible solution I thought it sensible to suggest taking the operation of nuclear power plants out of the hands of private companies that might scrimp on training and safety in pursuit of a fatter bottom line. I do believe that we need international control of fissile material too, an idea that’s been around since the dawn of the nuclear age and one that Dr. John Holdren, President Obama’s director of the Office of Science and Technology has embraced. Since several countries, including Russia, India, China, Japan and South Korea, have asked the USA to share IFR technology, this is a golden opportunity to make such a control regime a possibility.
NTH: How do you see such a system being put into place?
BLEES: A group of scientists, engineers and activists have joined me in creating an international think tank called The Science Council for Global Initiatives (www.thesciencecouncil.com). We plan to organize scientists from all the aforementioned countries to hammer out the political framework for controlling IFR technology.
If the USA were to share its technology, then you would have a situation where an organization such as GREAT would be not only monitoring these power plants but managing them. The countries involved would surrender a slight degree of energy sovereignty in exchange for having the benefit of superbly trained individuals running their power plants.
NTH: Overall, what do you think are the chances of getting to an IFR-based system?
BLEES: I think the chances are pretty good. Part of the challenge is simply education. With resource wars and climate change becoming an increasingly urgent issue, IFRs represent a way forward that can solve humanity’s most intractable problems. We have a choice to make. We can choose either an energy-poor future rent by wars over ever-diminishing resources, or we can choose an energy-rich future where everyone can enjoy a standard of living comparable to that now enjoyed in developed countries. We in the USA have to quit thinking of our energy issues in parochial terms and accept the global nature of the challenges we face. Once we do that, then we must pursue realistic global solutions, not fantasies.
NTH: Thanks very much for your time and good luck with your efforts.