Mass-producible integral fast reactor modules can power every country on earth for nearly a millennium with waste products already at hand.
The integral fast reactor (IFR) is a type of complete closed nuclear power system that recycles its own waste so that the elements that are radioactive for tens of thousands of years are all consumed and converted into electricity and waste elements with short half-lives. IFRs are capable of using spent fuel from existing reactors (so-called "nuclear waste") as well as old weapons material and even depleted uranium. The inert waste from this process can't leach anything into the environment for thousands of years, yet its radiotoxicity will decline to levels below that of natural uranium ore in a few hundred years, so it essentially solves the nuclear waste problem. Whereas ordinary light-water reactors (LWRs) in use around the world today extract only about six-tenths of one percent of the energy in uranium, IFRs can utilize virtually all of it, making them over 150 times more efficient.
The IFR was developed at Argonne National Laboratory until 1994, when the program was defunded by congress just as it was finishing. The EBR-II reactor there ran for thirty years and proved every aspect of the system. The goal was to solve all the problems associated with nuclear power—safety, economics, proliferation, fuel issues, construction time, etc. The program was amazingly successful on all counts, yet the technology was shelved and virtually unknown until 2008 when it began to be publicized.
During the years of the Argonne IFR research, a consortium of major American companies led by General Electric (including Westinghouse, Bechtel, Raytheon, Babcock & Wilcox, etc.) worked at Argonne with their researchers to design a commercial-scale fast reactor incorporating the principles of the IFR. The result was the PRISM reactor. In the ensuing years that design has been slightly altered and optimized. It is capable of an output of 300-350 MWe, about a third the amount of a big power plant. The PRISM is a modular system intended for mass production and are ready to be built.
Category of the action
Reducing emissions from electric power sector.
What actions do you propose?
The challenges of climate change and the provision of energy and materials for a world that will contain about ten billion people by mid-century require technological leaps that we already have at our disposal. In 2008 I published a book called Prescription for the Planet - The Painless Remedy for our Energy & Environmental Crises. Shortly after that I was joined by a group of eminent scientists in creating an international think tank called The Science Council for Global Initiatives that seeks to craft policies that can produce a world of energy abundance for all mankind. The ancillary technologies to complement the IFR will enable material resources to be efficiently recycled without relying on human behavior and limited recycling techniques. We also have new members who have developed vehicle propulsion technologies that solve the zero-emission problem for personal and commercial transportation. The ultimate goal is to create a world in which the standard of living of all, in every nation, can rise to the level already experienced by those in the so-called developed countries. This is not only entirely possible, but necessary. We cannot expect billions of people in the world to be content with relative poverty while many of us live in comfort. This is an ethically preposterous proposition, yet it seems to be one that is often tacitly accepted by those who see the world and its resources as a zero-sum game.
Abundant energy is the key. And in order to produce energy in the massive amounts that will be necessary, we have to consider energy density. Relying on energy sources of extremely low density (wind, solar, biomass, wave, tidal) can never be realistically expected to provide all the energy that humanity will demand going forward. Those societies that are most advanced are high-energy societies. The correlation between standard of living and energy use is direct and obvious. That is why nuclear power is the obvious answer. The energy density of conventional nuclear power today (so-called light-water reactors, or LWRs) is so great that the cost of fuel for such reactors is trivial. Yet IFR technology is a tremendous leap to even greater energy density. Whereas LWRs extract a mere 0.6% of the energy in uranium, the IFR can utilize all of it, making them about 160 times more efficient than LWRs. All the energy that a person would need for their entire lifetime—for their heating and cooling, electricity, transportation, and all the energy that goes into the food they eat and the things they buy—could be harvested from a piece of depleted uranium the size of half a ping-pong ball. And depleted uranium is a waste product that countries gladly pay to get rid of!
The IFR was demonstrated at Argonne National Lab in the Eighties and Nineties. The EBR-II ran for thirty years. The commercial design was developed there and is ready to build. We know how to do this. It is NOT theoretical. So what we have to do is build them.
The PRISM is that reactor. It is a modular system, designed to be built in factories and shipped (usually by barge) to its site of use, then set into the ground where it should be able to run for at least 60 years, though it is expected that they might well last 100 years, and much of the associated infrastructure may last well beyond that long.
But naysayers are out in force. People say that they are just paper reactors, that they will take too long to build, that they'll be prohibitively expensive, that they won't work, etc. Such assertions are baseless, and sound outrageous to those who truly know this technology. Yet the only way to definitively rebut such arguments is to build the first one. Fortunately, several countries are considering that very step with great interest. I fully expect that within a year or so at least one of those countries will make the decision to go ahead (I am personally involved in discussions with high-level policymakers in several countries at the time this is written.)
This technology is so desirable because virtually any nation that develops a mass production supply chain will be able to convert their entire country to IFR power within about a decade. We have seen France convert to nuclear very quickly, with reactor systems that were far more complex and difficult to build. Given that the fuel for these systems is essentially free for centuries, the incentive is certainly there to go all-out to deploy IFRs for all a country's energy needs.
Since many places in the world are already water-stressed, one can only imagine the water demand as we add another three billion people to the world's population. Providing the water for everyone, plus the energy to move it to where it's needed, will require desalination, pipeline and canal projects at an almost unimaginable scale. Yet we can easily provide that energy and more with IFRs.
As for transportation, new battery technologies being pioneered by some of our Science Council's new members will enable both private and commercial vehicle fleets to convert to electricity within the next decade. Where we may want to continue using liquid hydrocarbon fuels, we can create such fuels (like jet fuel) from water and air as long as the energy is available to make those conversions. IFRs will provide all the energy that's needed for those purposes too.
Since energy will be very cheap, I propose that a development tax be added onto electric bills in every developed country, say a penny per kilowatt-hour. That would be completely painless, yet it would provide sufficient ongoing funds to build IFRs and grids in developing countries. This proposal and many more can be found in my book Prescription for the Planet. You can also read about these cutting-edge technologies at the website of our think tank, SCGI. You can also download Prescription for free at that site. It provides realistic proposals to utilize both IFRs and other technologies to create an environmentally-benign world of plenty by the middle of the twenty-first century.
Since submitting this proposal, two commenters have raised questions and issues that I'd like to address here. Firstly, the judges have questioned why this technology was never deployed if it's so compelling. It was suggested that the objections that scuttled the project be explained and refuted.
There's an entire chapter in my book about this, so I would suggest that those with a particular interest in this take advantage of the free availability of my book (linked to elsewhere here) and read Chapter Twelve, Political Quicksand. There was a concerted effort to kill the funding for the completion of the IFR project, using John Kerry as the principle spokesperson for those orchestrating it from within the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy. The assistant director told Charles Till, who led the project at Argonne, that the project had to be shut down because "...it's a symbol." Clinton had a number of anti-nuclear people throughout his administration and killing the biggest nuclear R&D project was red meat for that base. The main objections presented by Kerry hinged on proliferation risk, which was entirely bogus since the pyroprocessing technology to recycle the fuel never isolates any weapons-grade material, is always too radioactive to handle (or pilfer), and was specifically designed to be proliferation resistant. Yet those were the early days of concern about North Korea's nuclear ambitions so that was the stalking horse Kerry used. Yet despite his impassioned and largely inaccurate arguments, the Senate did not kill the project. It was the House of Representatives that killed it (based in part on false economic arguments—it actually ended up costing more to cancel it prematurely than it would have cost to finish it, since the Japanese had sent us several million dollars to fund the projects final steps, and we had to send that back). Then in conference committee the nays won the day.
After that, the DOE discouraged those who'd worked on the project from publicizing it. In fact, the public information officer for Argonne National Lab West (where the IFR was developed) told me straight out when I first began to ferret out information about it that the DOE instructed him NOT to publicize it, only to respond to specific questions. So the IFR became one of many canceled government projects, with very few people even aware that it had been developed. Indeed, even among nuclear physicists and engineers it is still very little known, and certainly its details that effectively make it a disruptive technology are still relatively unknown to most experts in the field of nuclear engineering.
The question of why this compelling technology would be effectively buried is one that conspiracy theorists can (and have) spent lots of time discussing. After all, it can make every other energy technology obsolete, and displace all fossil fuel industries, the most powerful industries on the planet. On the other hand, in all my research I have never come across any such smoking guns. What I have seen is an appalling combination of short-sightedness, ignorance, and deviousness (by some), a recipe that has likely been the death knell for countless great ideas.
The fact that this system hasn't yet been deployed commercially isn't in any way proof that it's not viable. Logic would dictate that the technology be weighed on its merits (there is ample information to do so) and that every effort be made to usher in the age of IFRs.
The other commenter is a fan of Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors (LFTR). This is a technology with a zealous following, and its advocates can be found anywhere where a column with the word "nuclear" in it allows comments. I have known personally for several years the person who could justifiably be called the "leader" of the LFTR movement, Kirk Sorenson. He's an intelligent and genuinely fine person who is passionate about LFTR technology and is trying his best to get them built, just as I'm trying to get IFRs built. Both of us are motivated by the vision of creating an energy-rich future for humankind with safe and environmentally-benign nuclear power systems. We have discussed the relative merits of our favored technologies for years.
That said, the commenter robertsteinhaus focuses on what he perceives as the shortcomings of IFRs, mainly in two respects: the potential danger of sodium/water interaction and the amount of fissile material required to start up an IFR.
On the first point, it is obvious that every country that has built sodium-cooled fast reactors has considered the issue at length. The easy solution is to isolate the reactor vessel and any radioactive sodium from water by having the heat exchanger in a separate structure, and having the reactor vessel maintained in an argon atmosphere. This is covered in my book, of course. Here is the salient point: The PRISM reactor design underwent the usual probabilistic risk assessment studies, which were duly submitted and accepted by the NRC. These studies indicated that the probability of a core meltdown in a PRISM is so remote that even if we built enough PRISMs to power the entire planet we could expect a core meltdown once every 435,000 years. Even if those highly technical assessments are off by a factor of ten thousand, these would still be fantastically safe reactor systems.
As for fissile material needed to start them up, I wish we had the problem that we were deploying them too fast to do so easily. Since we can enrich fuel using current techniques and since these reactors can create more fuel than they burn, this is a short-term issue and long-term non-issue.
The LFTR may, in the end, prove to be as fantastic as its afficionados claim. But the fact remains that it needs more R&D (not enough space to get into the technical issues), and the PRISM is ready to be built today. Climate change isn't waiting. Let's build IFRs now and maybe LFTRs will prove as good as their fans claim in the near future.
Who will take these actions?
Given the current political gridlock in general in the USA, and the dysfunctional nature of nuclear politics in particular, it seems unlikely that the USA will pioneer the building of the first commercial-scale IFR systems in the country where they were developed. The United Kingdom will very probably accept GE-Hitachi's amazing offer to build two PRISM reactors in the UK with GEH's own money, but even if they do it's likely that the process will drag on for quite a long time before they can break ground. China, India, Russia, Korea, and Japan are all interested in building fast reactors for commercial use, and are especially interested in the metal fuel technology that sets the IFR apart from all the previous fast reactor designs. At this point it looks highly likely that China or Russia will be the first to build IFRs, very likely in partnership with GEH. Korea might well do so quickly as well if the current negotiations with the USA result in the Americans accepting Korea's wish to move into IFR technology sooner rather than later. The negotiations are stymied in large part because the USA still clings to the seemingly futile hope that North Korea will willingly give up its nuclear weapons. The rationale for pressuring South Korea to not go ahead with IFRs is that if the USA assents to their utilization of new nuclear technologies then North Korea will use that as an excuse to NOT give up their own weapons programs, despite the fact that South Korea shows no inclination to make weapons. The bottom line is that very likely they'll first be built outside the USA, but once they're built they will probably move toward mass production fairly quickly because of their many desirable characteristics.
Where will these actions be taken?
The reactors will be built in the countries that make the decision to build them, of course, though it's also likely that once supply chains are in place for mass production they will be exported to many countries.
How much will emissions be reduced or sequestered vs. business as usual levels?
It is entirely possible to build and fuel enough IFR-style systems to produce all the energy (not just electricity) that humanity demands by the middle of the century. If that is done, non-agricultural emissions could be reduced to virtually zero. In fact, if new magnesium-silicate cements are used in non-critical areas of future IFR power plant sites, the projects could actually be carbon-negative. While this won't be the case initially (since cement production, steel production, etc. are all still dependent on carbon-producing technologies), as abundant electricity takes over all these industrial systems can be converted to electric power. Since uranium mining and enrichment will no longer be needed, the total life cycle carbon footprint of future IFRs will be about as close to zero as one can get. Of course the entire fuel fabrication and recycling process will be electrically-powered from the beginning.
What are other key benefits?
What are the proposal’s costs?
While it's difficult to predict with accuracy the cost of IFR systems, the history of mass production and the simplified design of the PRISM reactors and the pyroprocessing facilities would indicate that these systems will almost surely be among the most economical nuclear power systems ever built. Since they can use waste products for fuel, the cost of fuel will only be the trivial cost of fabrication in on-site facilities.
Clearly GE-Hitachi understands the economics quite well since they offered to build a pair of PRISMs with their own money for the UK. Arm-waving predictions of exorbitant costs by anti-nuclear groups are nothing but baseless speculation. These modular systems have very few pumps, valves and other parts. They require no pressure vessel since they operate at atmospheric pressure. The amount of materials used per megawatt (cement, steel, copper, etc) is a small fraction of that used for wind or solar projects. There is absolutely nothing to warrant predictions of prohibitive costs. Quite the contrary.
Given its design features, the building of a modular PRISM reactor should be easier than building a heavy bomber. In 1945 alone the USA built 6,700 heavy- and super-heavy bombers. 6,700 PRISM reactors could produce as much electricity as the entire world produced—from all sources—in 2009. The real bottleneck will not be one of construction time but of coming up with sufficient fissile material to start up all the reactors that we could easily build very quickly. Because of that, if the world begins to see a massive deployment of IFRs, we will want to continue to mine and enrich uranium to create startup fuel for them as quickly as possible. This effort can be greatly aided by successful commercialization of laser enrichment technology, which looks very much like it will be ready by the time IFRs begin to see a building boom.
Since an IFR-type reactor like the PRISM can use a core configuration that will allow it to breed fuel from Uranium 238 sufficient to keep the reactor fueled plus produce enough startup fuel to fire up another one in about 7 years (the so-called "doubling time"), we will ultimately be able to stop mining completely, and all the fuel needed for an expansion of the worldwide IFR fleets will be easily available from existing IFRs.
Any proposals having to do with desalination, liquid fuels or electric transportation are certainly related to this proposal, since IFRs can produce ample energy for any such uses.
The best place to find abundant references that go way beyond the points submitted here can be found in the hundreds of footnotes in my book, Prescription for the Planet. That book can be downloaded for free at the following URL: http://tinyurl.com/9992kma
That book goes into great detail about the IFR. Further technical information is available for interested parties in the excellent book by the two leaders of the IFR development project, Charles Till and Yoon Chang. Their book, Plentiful Energy, is available at Amazon.com.
What can be done to reduce greenhouse gas emissions attributable to the electric power sector?