The Integral Fast Reactor (IFR) project: Congress Q&A
California Lt. Governor John Garamendi held an IFR briefing in Sacramento on October 20, 2008. The attendee list included Tom Isaacs (LLNL), Ehud Greenspan (UC Berkeley), Doug Carroll (GE PRISM project director, ret), Eric Loewen (GE PRISM project director), John Garamendi (Lt. Gov. of California), Jasmina Vujic (chair of UC Berkeley Dept. of Nuclear Engineering), Bill Hannum (IFR researcher at Argonne, ret), Tom Blees, Lora Lee Martin (CA Council on Science & Technology, Craig Smith (LLNL). Participating by phone were Per Peterson (who previously held Jasmina's position at Berkeley) and Burton Richter (a particle physicist who ran SLAC for years and won the Nobel prize for physics in '76).
Garamendi had assembled people who knew about nuclear power as well as IFR experts because he wanted to get an unbiased assessment of the technology. Garamendi came away from that meeting convinced that this was a critical technology to re-start and he is now taking actions to accomplish that. He would like to have the first IFR plant built in California.
Noted British environmental writer Mark Lynas is pushing it because he wants to save the planet even though his stance is not "popular" with environmentalists. Indeed, Lynas was surprised himself about what he learned when he looked at the facts objectively. See Mark Lynas: the green heretic persecuted for his nuclear conversion.
Mary Nichols, the highly respected chair of California's Air Resources Board, has been saying for many years that breeder reactors, such as the IFR, are a critical part of the energy mix and should be pursued.
Charles Till, former co-director of Argonne National Lab and the inventor of the IFR, now long retired, still believes it in, but he's not pushing it. I think the most telling argument I can give you is this email that I received from retired cattle rancher Joe deGanahl. The bold part is my emphasis:
There is not a long list of people who support it because hardly anyone knows about it. Hansen and Lynas just found out about it and Gore just found out about it from Hansen.
Fundamentally, you either believe in people like Charles Till and Jim Hansen, or you don't.
Hansen told Congress early on about global warming. Congress didn't listen. Who was right?
Here's a partial list of IFR supporters:
Who is opposed to it?
The most knowledgeable strongest opponent to the IFR that I'm aware of is Thomas Cochran, Senior Scientist, at NRDC. His concerns are cost and reliability. He says many countries have tried to build IFRs but have been unsuccessful. He thinks in-plant pyroprocessing is not economical.
In a way, his arguments remind me of the same debate with fuel cells. There are the electric car advocates who say fuel cell vehicles will never be economical and they cite all sort of statistics as to why fuel cells cars will never be economical. Yet there are lots of car companies who are investing billions of dollars in building fuel cell vehicles and limited commercial availability of fuel cell cars will be next year.
The opposition comes from people who haven't been briefed first-hand on the technology and/or who make associations with old nuclear technology or who really don't understand the technology and the alternatives.
And it will likely come from people who are simply misinformed and look for arguments to support their position. John Kerry's arguments against the IFR in 1994 fall into this camp. Blees's book examines each of Kerry's argument in Chapter 12. Charles Till's excellent article on the IFR was succinct about Kerry's arguments:
I'm not aware of a single prominent scientist who was qualified to understand the IFR technology who opposed it back in 1994. So you had politicians providing their own version of the science because the science didn't support what the politicians wanted to do.
Environmentalists who first hear about the IFR are opposed. When noted British environmental writer Mark Lynas was won over by the IFR and wrote about his enlightenment in the press, he was roundly chastised by people who knew virtually nothing of the IFR.
There are groups such as Physicians for Social Responsibility who are against
all things nuclear. But all of their nuclear opposition is based around existing nuclear
technology, not the 4th generation nuclear technology which is radically
different in terms of safety, proliferation, and waste issues.
You can read Senator Kerry's remarks and Blees rebuttal in Chapter 12 of
Blees's book (page 327ff).
Also, there are non-technical solutions to the proliferation problem, e.g., we only build the plants if we jointly operate them under international supervision or, at a minimum, we only build them if we have at least one trusted observer in each plant.
The genie is already out of the bottle with respect to breeder technology as
other countries have similar breeder reactor designs. The US can choose to lead
and set the standards, or we can let our fate be in the hands of decisions by
If you are looking for a definitive answer, you will not find one. You will only find people's opinions. You can find respected nuclear scientists like Till who still believe this is the best alternative. And you can find detractors (who are not as knowledgeable about the IFR) who can argue that other approaches are move proven.
There is only one way to settle the debate and that is to build one.
George Stanford, a scientist who worked on the IFR, did a great job
dissecting former Secretary of Energy Hazel R. O'Leary's stated reasons in March
15, 1994 for pulling the plug on this
spectacularly successful project. O'Leary was formerly a was previously a
lobbyist for fossil fuel companies. His rebuttal is here:
So this has been vetted in Congress. The Senate supported it, the House didn't, and it was killed in a behind closed doors conference committee.
But that was then and things have changed.
But the more important reason is that it is urgent. This is not global warming. It is a climate crisis. If you asked Al Gore or Jim Hansen or any one of the climate scientists who won the Nobel prize whether it is OK for us to continue to debate what to do, they'd tell you that the planet is dying and the sooner you act to save it, the better your chances. Some scientists have pointed out that we have wasted so much time before taking definitive action that we may already be too late. Of course, that isn't a problem if Congress has found another planet for us to all live on. But they haven't. We only have one planet and this project should have been restarted 14 years ago. Now, today's newspaper headlines say "Too late? Why scientists say we should expect the worst" referring to the irreversible planetary damage caused by our inaction.
Another way to look at this is to ask Congress the question : How much of the North Pole has to melt away forever before we treat the climate crisis with the same urgency as the financial crisis? Or how much of the US has to be covered in soot before Congress treats this with the same urgency as the economic crisis? Do we all have to be wearing gas masks every day like in China before we take some steps to displace coal plants? Or are we simply going to spend the rest of our lives having to wear face masks when we walk outside for the next hundred years or so?
I have news for you. That atmospheric brown cloud (ABC) that now engulfs all of India and half of China....it isn't getting any smaller. It is a three km-thick layer of soot and other manmade particles that stretches from the Arabian Peninsula to China and the western Pacific Ocean. Every day, it's growing bigger and bigger. It may be out of sight right now, but I can guarantee you it's heading our way. USA Today says, "The huge plumes have darkened 13 megacities in Asia — including Beijing, Shanghai, Bangkok, Cairo, Mumbai and New Delhi — sharply "dimming" the amount of light by as much as 25% in some places." Among the effects of this phenomenon is a decrease in the monsoon rains over India in recent years, with potentially disastrous effects on the agriculture that sustains over a billion people. They are hastening the melting of the glaciers in northern Pakistan and India, with perhaps deadly implications for the rivers that flow from those headwaters. Pakistan without the "five rivers" and the Indus would be a wasteland.
So at what point do we stop the debate and treat this as a crisis? When it is too late and we are engulfed? Or will we react like the China government and continue to build new coal plants and make the problem even worse?
This is a crisis. In a crisis, you turn to your best expert and ask him what to do. You don't sit around debating the issue. You go to the guy who was right all along, the guy who had the most vision to foresee the crisis before it became a crisis.
Your best guy, the guy who sounded the alarm bells in his Congressional testimony before anyone else on the planet, Jim Hansen, is telling you point blank what to do.
When Hansen first learned of the IFR, he wrote in his August 4, 2008 trip report that the project shouldn't have been cancelled:
However, as Hansen learned more, his writings became more emphatic. Here are some direct quotes from Hansen's November 21, 2008 advice to Obama memo:
Do you think Al Gore would advise Congress to spend time debating the IFR?
Phasing in 4th generation nuclear would also lead to replacing our dangerous coal plants with safe nuclear plants. I'll bet you're surprised by that last statement...I sure was. But it turns out that there is more than 100 times more exposure to radiation from coal plants than from nuclear plants! In fact, the energy content of the radioactive waste spewed from coal plants is greater than the energy of the coal that is being consumed. Talk about waste.
My objective is to save the planet and get planet-saving technologies available as soon as possible. The fastest way to do that is to short circuit the debate and put this in as a line item in this stimulus package. Call me cynical, but I think that if this is allowed to be debated in Congress, it could set the project back for years while Congress mulls over the pros and cons. Look what happened last time. The arguments were aired. The Senate voted one way, the House the other. We could update the arguments and do it all over again. Why take the risk? If this was put in as a line item, is there really going to be opposition to giving $1.5 billion to DOE to build a demonstration IFR reactor? This is basically hedging our environmental risk. The sooner we do that, the better. If you want to kill it after the debate, do it. The amount of money wasted will be small. But if you decide to ratify the earlier decision, then it was smart to get it started now.
So I see the stimulus bill as a way to get a fast track approval on this important project.
So if the leadership agrees with the scientists, then this is one way to get things done.
The other way to position this is that the IFR solves the nuclear waste problem and there is this huge nuclear fuel disposal fund which now has around $25 billion in it (collected over the past 40 years) which could be tapped to restart this project. This is a far more economic way to get rid of our nuclear waste than any of the alternatives. There are 42,000 tons of nuclear waste in the US alone and I believe we've already wasted around $60 billion dollars in Yucca Mountain.
On August 7, 2008, the White House said that $96.2 billion dollars would be needed for storing nuclear waste at the Yucca mountain facility through the time it is sealed in the year 2133; that’s a 67% rise in costs from the 2001 estimate of $57.5 billion dollars.
This is chump change compared to that and the solution is far superior. The sooner we prove this, the more money we save. The only way to end the debate is to build a demonstration reactor.
By using the funds from the nuclear fuel disposal fund, no taxpayer money is used.
So it's a huge triple benefit: 1) immediate job creation, 2) solution to the
climate crisis, and 3) solves nuclear waste problem more economically than any
alternative that has been proposed.
This project will take 5 years if Obama orders the NRC to fast-track the
certification of the PRISM and the longer we keep putting it
off, the more damage will be done. It gets exponentially harder to stop global
warming as time goes on. The least expensive approach is to start yesterday.
While a billion dollars is a large earmark, it is tiny in comparison to the
magnitude of the problem it solves.
If the entire country was just diagnosed with an incurable deadly cancer and there were no treatments that could save our lives, would you fund development of a drug that some of your best scientists tell you is essential for stopping the cancer? Or would you debate whether that might be necessary or not?
I'm sure we can debate this all day just like we did in 1994 when the Senate thought it was a good idea and the House didn't. Hansen specifically warned against this as I mentioned earlier.
But things have changed since this was last debated: global warming is now the big elephant AND we still don't have a clearly better option than the IFR to stop coal.
You can't evaluate whether the IFR will do everything it claims until you build one. It may not be the best bet we have. We won't know for sure until we build one. You can find experts on either side of the issue. But all the experts who are unbiased who have been briefed will tell you it is a reasonable bet to make. And if you ask them if there is a clearly better bet to make, they'll tell you that there isn't. But people are hesitant to say this is the best bet because nobody knows whether it is the "best." Therefore, we need to be making some reasonable bets here with the knowledge that we might be investing in a technology which isn't yet proven. There are no guarantees for any of this.
One thing we do know for sure: this technology was invented by our smartest energy scientists who were aware of all the negative arguments. It is a reasonable bet to bet on their wisdom. Even today, Charles Till still believes that this is the best technology out there. And Charles Till is one of our country's most brilliant scientists.
I'm asking Congress to bet on some really smart scientists even though not
every scientist will say it is a slam dunk. The point is that there are very
smart scientists such as Hansen who think this is a good thing and that,
combined with our lack of a clearly better alternative, justifies placing a big
bet on these guys.
Other answers to the same question set: