The integral fast reactor, touted on this page recently, is a promise that, even after many decades, remains unfulfilled.
In “Nuclear: A better way? Here’s why,” Craig Bowron (June 8) extolled the merits of integral fast reactors (and, not incidentally, touted a new Robert Stone movie). Unfortunately, some considerations were omitted.
About 20 fast-reactor designs have been planned or built since the 1950s. Designs vary in details, but they have common features, among them the characteristics emphasized by Bowron: the ability to utilize a larger fraction of uranium fuel than do conventional reactors; the potential, in theory, to reduce radioactive waste, and the use of sodium as coolant instead of the ordinary (light) water used in current reactors.
The liquid metal fast breeder reactor (LMFBR) was the centerpiece of U.S. nuclear power policy in the 1960s and early 1970s. The official U.S. Atomic Energy Commission plan was that by 2000 there would be about 1,000 U.S. fast reactors, accounting for half of all power production. When the LMFBR program died in the early 1980s, Argonne National Laboratory began working on the integral fast reactor (IFR). The project was canceled by Congress in 1994.
There are or were fast-reactor programs in France, Japan, the Soviet Union, India, the U.K. and elsewhere. Fast reactors pose daunting engineering, economic, national security and safety issues. Most of the numerous fast-reactor accidents have been caused by leaks of the sodium coolant and by sodium explosions and fires.
There have been a number of summaries of the international experience with fast reactors. For example, the 2010 International Panel on Fissile Materials concluded:
“After six decades and the expenditure of the equivalent of tens of billions of dollars, the promise of breeder [fast] reactors remains largely unfulfilled and efforts to commercialize them have been steadily cut back in most countries. … The breeder reactor dream is not dead but has receded far into the future.”
Given that their problems have been amply demonstrated for decades, one might wonder why enthusiasm for fast-reactor programs lives on. The profit motive notwithstanding, the primary reason is the recognition that greenhouse gas pollution and the consequent climate disruption must be controlled. More than 80 percent of global primary energy is now produced from fossil fuels — oil, natural gas, and coal and other solid hydrocarbons. Most carbon dioxide (CO2), the most important greenhouse gas pollutant, results from the burning of these fossil fuels.
To curb climate disruption, emissions of CO2 and the other major greenhouse gases must be essentially eliminated. This means an end to burning fossil fuels as currently practiced. There are but three options sufficiently large to supply global energy needs:
• Continue using coal, oil and the other hydrocarbons but employ technology to prevent the emission to the atmosphere of CO2 — carbon capture and storage (CCS).
• A massive deployment of nuclear power.
• Renewable energy sources, the most promising of which are solar (photovoltaic solar cells and other means), wind power and the use of green plants, e.g., biofuels.
Enormous difficulties must be overcome before these can be expanded to displace fossil fuels. Among them are:
• Estimates are that using CCS could double the cost of electricity even if places to store the CO2 could be developed. Despite many years of talk and research, not a single commercial-scale CCS plant is in operation anywhere in the world.
• Large-scale deployment of solar, wind and the other renewable energy sources requires further development of energy storage and distribution systems. Using arable land for growing energy crops instead of for food raises ethical issues. Deploying serious renewable energy systems will require overcoming vigorous opposition from fossil-fuel interests. The political clout of these companies is enormous — eight of the 11 largest global companies (ranked by 2010 annual revenue) are oil/gas companies.
• Nuclear power, whether or not deploying fast reactors, poses enormous political, economic, waste management, safety and proliferation challenges.
Limiting CO2 pollution, and hence avoiding potentially catastrophic climate disruption, requires fundamental changes in global energy systems. In addition to the obvious market issues, this is why there is renewed interest is the integral fast reactor and its kin.
Difficult, and hopefully informed, political decisions must soon be made. In my view, renewable energy wins hands down.
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