The Integral Fast Reactor (IFR) project: Q&A

by Steve Kirsch

I collected answers to some questions people had about the IFR here. Tom Blees, George Stanford, Carl Page contributed most of the material and helped review this page for accuracy.

Q. Do we need nuclear? Can't we do it without it?

That's what I used to think. See this rebuttal to my 2006 Mercury News op-ed for the reasons we can't.

Q. If this is really so good, how come GE isn't building S-PRISM on their own nickel?

Nobody wants to risk it since it isn't a slam dunk. You don't get a reward if you solve global warming. And government funding doesn't seem to be so easy. DOE tried to get funding for GNEP (which included IFR technology) and got shot down (so far).

GE is a large conservative corporation. They already service a fleet of lightwater reactors, are building more of them around the world, and have the promise of yet more. It's hard enough in this country to move into new levels of reactor technology without trying to leapfrog straight into the 4th generation. Their 3rd generation ESBWR is in the 5th round of NRC certification, whereas the S-PRISM (a souped up and more developed version of the PRISM) isn't at the starting gate. These things take years at the glacial pace of the NRC, though of course if President Obama decided to go all Manhattan project on it we could most definitely get there quickly enough. If GE started pushing 4th generation breeder reactors, can you imagine the hue and cry from the antie groups? What's their incentive to do that? If they're convinced that ultimately we'll end up at 4th generation reactors anyway and they can make plenty of dough and keep a low profile just taking the go slow approach, don't you imagine that's exactly what they'll do? Besides, conceivably another country with whom we have nuclear technology sharing agreements might very well certify and build it before the NRC ever gets out of the starting gate, which would make it much easier for the eventual NRC certification.

Q. If this is really so good, how come someone in government isn't trying to get it restarted?

The DOE is attempting to resuscitate fast-reactor technology, as part of the GNEP (Global Nuclear Energy Partnership) initiative. See, and

The IFR is one form of fast-reactor technology (metallic fuel with pyroprocessing), but there are others -- inferior, according to the IFR scientists.  The important thing these days is to get the U.S. back into a leadership role in the development and management of nuclear power, recognizing that recycling in fast reactors is necessary if the long-lived waste is to be consumed, and if the full energy potential of the uranium is to be exploited.  The GNEP would resuscitate fast-reactor technology in this country.

Q. Critics claim fast reactors are “expensive to build, complex to operate, susceptible to prolonged shutdown as a result of even minor malfunctions, and difficult and time-consuming to repair.”

I'm not aware of anyone who is an expert on Integral Fast Reactor technology (who actually really understands the science) who has this view. One Nobel prize winning physicist who was recently briefed on the IFR (Burton Richter, former Director of SLAC) told me that, at best, there is insufficient scientific evidence to make such a statement. Is there someone who knows the fast reactor science as well as Dr. Chang or Dr. Till who holds that view? Certainly not the MIT study (as they admitted up front). So whose expert opinion are you relying on here?

 Secondly, if your statement was true, then aren't these statements directly in direct conflict with the facts? If the critics are to be relied upon, then none of the following would have been possible at all:

– The Monju reactor was undamaged by the fire (rated 1 on a scale of 0 to 7, with 7 being the most serious accident), and has been kept shut down for political reasons. I think it has been given the go-ahead to start up.
– The EBR-II fast reactor worked flawlessly for many years ( 31 years from 1963-1994)
– The Phenix fast reactor in France has been on-line for decades.
– The Superphenix reactor was shut down for political reasons, after it finally had its problems behind it and was working well.
– The Russian BN-600 has been working well for decades.

Ray Hunter was for the past 29 years as the former Deputy Director of the Office of Nuclear Energy, Science and Technology in the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). Should his view count?  Here's what he wrote to me:

My name is Ray Hunter. I am the former Deputy Director of the Office of Nuclear Energy, Science and Technology in the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). I spent more than 29 years in DOE and the predecessor agencies working on developing advanced nuclear reactors for civilian nuclear power applications. After evaluating several alternatives, I came to the conclusion that a sodium cooled fast reactor using metal fuel and non aqueous reprocessing offered the best option to compliment and eventually replace Light Water Reactors (LWR’s). The basis for my conclusion was the successful proof of principle demonstration work completed by Argonne National Laboratory. It is important to understand that there were had two versions of the IFR concept; the second version involved a sodium cooled reactor using mixed uranium oxide and plutonium oxide fuel and aqueous reprocessing. The second version required separating Plutonium-239 for fabrication into new fuel which was considered to be a major proliferation issue. Unfortunately, the Clinton administration considered all fast reactors concepts as too much of a proliferation risk and cancelled all work on fast reactors. Actually, the decision to forgo processing of LWR fuel as enacted into law by 1982 Radioactive Waste Management Policy Act was the precursor for ending fast reactor technology development. The Department did continue to support in corporation with industry advanced LWR designs for future use. These advanced designs have been approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commissions but none have been ordered in the U.S. because of the unresolved waste issue and the economic risk of trying to build and license a nuclear power plant in the U.S. Versions of these advanced LWR designs have already been built and are operating in Japan and South Korea.

The ill conceived U.S. policy of a once through LWR fuel cycle has never been adopted by any other nuclear power nation. According to Senator Reid, Yucca Mountain will not proceed as long as his any say in the matter. Until there is a path forward on LWR spent fuel, it is unlikely any new nuclear plant will be built in the U.S. The technical facts clearly show that the most cost effective and environmentally sound way to deal with LWR spent fuel is use the IFR concept with metal fuel and non aqueous reprocessing. While the proposed GNEP concept does not require plutonium separation, it is still based on oxide fuel and aqueous reprocessing which does allay proliferation concerns. Also, the GNEP concept is being offered as global solution for minimizing nuclear proliferation based on certain countries doing reprocessing including the U.S. but our current law precludes it.  

I am attaching a recent letter I sent to Senator Reid. In my judgment, we need to focus on the waste issue to break the logjam on nuclear power in the U.S. We don’t need to deploy the IFR in the private sector for the foreseeable future to get the benefits of expanded nuclear power use. If inviting the IAEA to oversee IFR facilities at government sites would promote acceptance of reprocessing, then we should proceed accordingly. Any thoughts you have on this matter would be appreciated.

Q. A lot of critics claim the plants will be too expensive to build.

The cost of a power plant is often expressed in terms of dollars per kilowatt of capacity.  Every $1,000/kWe in initial cost adds, very roughly, one cent per kilowatt-hour to the cost of the electricity (assuming a 40-year write-off period and an interest rate of 8.5% per year).

The cost of a nuclear plant is very hard to predict these days, because it depends heavily on the regulatory climate.  In more detail, here's something Eric Loewen (GE) has written on the subject of cost:

. . . This is not to say that PRISM or any other nuclear reactor will be inexpensive when built in the United States. The same GE Hitachi reactors that were built in Japan in the late 90s for about $1,400/kW are estimated to cost several times that much in the USA. Considering that the actual cost of raw materials is an insignificant portion of that price (about $35/kW), and that interest rates are at record low levels, the significantly higher price tags being bandied about by private utility companies reflects a regulatory/corporate/governmental environment that needs fixing. Part of the problem could be solved by a commitment to nuclear power from the federal government, streamlined licensing procedures for standardized designs, and shielding from interminable lawsuits like those that crippled the nuclear power industry in the 70s and 80s.

        There is nothing inherently uneconomical about nuclear power. Japan imports virtually all their building materials and has high labor costs. If they can build GE ABWR plants for a very reasonable price, there is no reason why the USA shouldn't be able to do the same.

Q. How many IFR plants do we need to replace all the coal plants in the US?

There are 200 nuclear plants now supplying 20% of our power. Coal provides about half our power. So you'd need about 400 new nuclear plants to displace all the coal plants.

Q. Can you convert existing coal plants to be IFR plants?

One nice thing about the S-PRISM is that they're modular units and of relatively low output (one power block of two will provide 760 MW). They could be emplaced in excavations at existing coal plants and utilize the same turbines, condensers (towers or others), and grid infrastructure as the coal plants currently use, and the proper number of reactor vessels could be used to match the capabilities of those facilities. Essentially all you'd be replacing is the burner (and you'd have to build a new control room, of course, or drastically modify the current one). Thus you avoid most of the stranded costs. If stranded costs can thus be kept to a minimum, both here and, more importantly, in China, we'll be able to talk realistically not just about stopping to build new coal plants but replacing the existing ones, even the newest ones.

Q. What about waste?

George Stanford wrote the following in response to a WSJ article:

In saying that "There Is No Such Thing as Nuclear Waste" (March 13), William Tucker is even more correct than he realizes.  He talks about putting the "plain old U-238" back in the ground, because he thinks it's "non-fissionable."  True, U-238 is not as fissionable as U-235 (which is called "fissile"), but all you have to do is put another neutron into a U-238 nucleus, and you soon have fissile Pu-239. In fact, some 30% of the power from today's reactors comes from the fissioning of Pu-239 atoms that used to be U-238.

     But that's not the half of it. Today's reactors are called "thermal" because their neutrons are slowed down to low ("thermal") speeds.  That kind of reactor cannot extract even one percent of the energy in the uranium that was mined to make the fuel.  "Fast" reactors, in which the neutrons are not slowed down, have the ability to utilize the remaining 99% -- thereby getting a hundred time as much energy from the uranium that we have dug up.

    Other countries (India, China, France, Japan, Russia, South Korea) are working to implement fast reactors.  The United States used to be the leader in the field, but no longer is, because development of our fast reactor -- the IFR -- was terminated in 1994, for non-technical reasons.  However, General Electric continued a low-level effort, and now stands ready to build a commercial-scale demonstration plant, given the needed seed money.

        With IFRs we could power the nation for centuries without mining another ounce of uranium.  The only waste from an IFR is about a ton of fission products (broken uranium atoms) per year for every moderately big (1000 MW) power plant -- and many of those elements have commercial value.  Moreover, their radioactivity decays to insignificance within 500 years.

Q. How safe are these new nuclear designs?

Davis-Besse is a classic example of why Blees makes the argument in his book to completely divorce nuclear power from nationalism and to take all nuclear power out of the hands of private entities. The new Gen III LWRs, though, are so far advanced as to merit their designation as a different generation. The probabilistic risk assessment of the ESBWR is astronomical, one core melt accident every 29 million reactor-years. Since we don't have enough nuclear waste to load new IFRs quickly enough to meet the 2050 goal of zero emissions, the newest LWRs could be built to fill any gap that renewables and IFRs couldn't fill and can be expected to perform safely. Their safety features are far beyond our current reactors by orders of magnitude.

Q. How much fuel is there for IFR plants?

For maybe 50,000 of years if we can get past the stigma associated with breeder reactors. An esoteric but important point is that the IFR (GE calls it S-PRISM) uses metallic fuel, whereas competing proposals employ oxide fuel.  Metallic fuel has both safety and breeding advantages.  Breeding, however, is a dirty word these days, so the GNEP emphasis is on burning the transuranics, instead of using them to assure an expanding source of clean energy into the indefinite future. Blees estimates we can get 45,000 years of energy to power the entire planet from the nuclear material we know about today. But only if we use them in IFR plants or something similar. If we use our nuclear material in conventional plants, and don't build IFRs this century, we'll be about of fuel. It's like throwing away a huge energy source forever!!

Q. How come nobody's ever heard of it before now?

Tom Blees wrote:

Few people know about the S-PRISM technology. It's been a fairly well-kept secret. The DOE actually ordered those who worked on the IFR project to NOT publicize it. It took me years to ferret out the information, though of course with the evolution of the Internet things are now more available. Even so, politicians and policymakers know very little about it. The DOE is still censoring research reports that mention anything about breeding fuel, so the policymakers are kept in the dark. That's one of the reasons I wrote my book, to bring it out into the light.

Q. The IFR was invented a long long time ago. There are lots of more recent designs for nuclear reactors today. Aren't some of them superior to the IFR?

Tom Blees wrote:

I would say a pretty unequivocal no.
Virtually every major country with a nuclear power program: India, China, Russia, Japan, South Korea even, are aiming to transition to breeder reactors and a closed fuel cycle (i.e. no long-lived nuclear waste). The IFR design is the ne plus ultra of breeder design. The PRISM project (not S-PRISM) was a project led by GE that included many different organizations, and a solid argument can be made that it's the best of the best. However, if we're serious about moving away from fossil fuels we'll need to build some more lightwater reactors at first because (and I know this sounds ironic) we don't have enough nuclear waste to fuel the sort of building project we'd need to build enough IFRs between now and 2050 to reach a zero GHG target. That's the concept my book is meant to flesh out: not just a reduction but a virtual elimination of GHG emissions from human activity.
That being said, there's no reason to shy away from the implications, for the new LWRs utilize passive safety systems much like the IFR. Probabalistic risk assessments of the ESBWR, for instance, posit a core meltdown accident every 29 million years. The risk assessment of the AP-1000 may not be quite that impressive , but it's several orders of magnitude greater than the NRC demands from reactors. The bottom line is that we could start building reactors today and transistion as quickly as possible to an all-IFR world, but it would be fine because all the spent fuel from both old and new LWRs would simply be used as fuel by the IFRs and these new LWRs are very very safe. Once we had enough IFRs up and running, we would be able to create new fuel for the remaining LWRs in the IFRs so even before the LWRs reached the end of their life spans we'd be able to completely shut down uranium mining. We'd need no more uranium or coal mining, no more oil or gas drilling.
The IRIS reactor design is likewise a transitional design. Pebble beds, while touted by many for their safety, have the deal-breaking (in my opinion) issue of creating non-recyclable long-lived nuclear waste, something we really want to avoid and which we can very easily avoid.

The ABWR is quite good, but the AP-1000 and ESBWR will be even better. And the S-PRISM the best. Of course the ABWRs are being built right now, but soon the next two will be certified and ready to build. Westinghouse already has a number of potential orders in the USA for the AP-1000, and has started building a couple in China.

Q. What's Gore's take on the IFR?

I was told by one of his spokespeople that he thinks there are other alternatives that make more sense. However, Gore has never been briefed on the IFR by anyone associated with the project, so this is Gore's uninformed opinion of the IFR.

Q. What does Mary Nichols, chair of California's Air Resources Board, think?

She is scheduled to be briefed. But she's long been saying publicly that nuclear has to be part of the mix and would make a comeback but only with breeder technology. So the IFR seems to fit her criteria.

Q. How about the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS)?

Dave Lochbaum, Director of the Nuclear Safety Project, UCS has been in the nuclear industry for nearly 30 years. He wrote:

Overall, I am not persuaded by the arguments that the IFR will play or should play a key role in our or the world's energy future. The IFR looks good on paper. So good, in fact, that we should leave it on paper. For it only gets ugly in moving from blueprint to backyard.

While I'm a big supporter of UCS in general, in this case, I must say that that is the kind of thinking, or lack thereof, that apparently caused research and development to be shut off in 1994.  Too bad about the delay that it caused.  We can expect this sort of intransigence to continue. 

When Jim Hansen proposed in 2000 that non-CO2 forcings were important, UCS jumped all over his paper and refused to allow him to send a message making the case for the non-CO2 forcings to the lists to which they had sent their non-scientific abusive evaluation.

Blees responded to every objection UCS had about the IFR. So if you want to see both sides of the argument, that's the document to read.

Q. How does IFR compare to wind and solar?

Wind and solar at this point aren't as economically attractive as the IFR, and there's no guarantee that they will be superior to the IFR in the future.

IFRs would be cheaper than business as usual which is critical. Blees has the numbers in his book.

IFRs require virtually no space compared to a wind or solar farm. You just need water. And as far as the fuel goes, there is nothing that approaches the power density of IFR. You can generate a huge amount of energy with a very tiny amount of fuel.

Q. Don't IFR plants increase the terrorism risk?

It's hard to objectively answer that question. How can you prove it? In general, no, the fuel isn't suitable for making a bomb. You'd be much better off breaking into a second generation plant if you were going to try to break into a plant. And just like we can secure our airports chemical plants, etc, with not a lot of work, you can design these plants to be virtually impregnable by terrorists. That makes these plants a low risk because you have to do a lot of work to get nothing you can use.

However, there should still be a global political framework for managing these plants. Blees talks about this in his book.

You should look at the risks compared to other technology and the degree that they can be managed.

Q. Can you restart IFR politically?

Gore has said that to solve global warming, we need to re-define what is "politically possible." In the case of nuclear, more recently the public has become much more receptive to entertaining nuclear power and most energy experts are agnostic on nuclear at worst. Having Gore advocate for the IFR would certainly help. Having John Kerry advocate for the IFR would be significant as well since he was one of the leaders of the opposition in 1994.

Getting the support of key influencers is critical to getting this off the ground.

Without that, it will be way too easy for anyone to say no since that is the safe thing to say.

This will get mischaracterized and misinterpreted repeatedly and in numerous ways. It's like playing Chinese telephones. Sometimes it will be intentional, sometimes inadvertent. All the more reason why the IFR advocates need to be painstakingly accurate.

Q. What about the "key disadvantages" listed on the wikipedia page on the IFR?

George Stanford had to answer this for me. Here's what he wrote:

    * Because the current cost of reactor-grade enriched uranium is relatively low compared to the expected cost of large-scale pyroprocessing and electrorefining equipment and the cost of building a secondary coolant loop, the higher fuel costs of a thermal reactor over the expected operating lifetime of the plant are offset by the increased capital cost of an IFR. (Currently in the United States, utilities pay a flat rate of 1/10 of a cent per kilowatt hour for disposal of high level radioactive waste. If this charge were based on the longevity of the waste, then the IFR might become more financially competitive.)

        Perhaps true, if your time horizon is 30-50 years -- or perhaps not.  First-of-a-kind costs are always high, and the long-term, steady-state costs are TBD.   The hard-nosed guys at General Electric seem to sense a profit potential.  In the long run, recycling in fast reactors will be necessary, and the cost will be easily tolerable.  We can't forever keep treating as "waste" 99% of the energy in the uranium that is mined.  gss
    * Reprocessing nuclear fuel using pyroprocessing and electrorefining has not yet been demonstrated on a commercial scale. As such, investing in a large IFR plant is considered a higher financial risk than a conventional light water reactor.
        True.  GE is proposing to build a commercial-scale demonstration -- with a federal subsidy.  (I would not be surprised, however, if they were to go ahead on their own if outside help does not come in.)  gss
    * The flammability of sodium. Sodium burns easily in air, and will ignite spontaneously on contact with water. The use of an intermediate coolant loop between the reactor and the turbines minimizes the risk of a sodium fire in the reactor core.
        The flammability of sodium is not a show-stopper.  Sodium leaks are easy to detect.  Sodium fires have occurred, and will again, but good design can keep the consequences relatively minor.  The worst sodium fire that I know of -- in a secondary loop at the Monju reactor in Japan -- made a mess, but hurt nobody and did not damage the reactor.  It was cleaned up fairly promptly, but reactor restart was delayed by non-technical considerations.
        The GE design, I believe, precludes or contains a "sodium fire in the core."
        Sodium has many offsetting safety advantages.  I guess you can't have everything. gss
    * Under neutron bombardment, sodium-24 is produced. This is highly radioactive, emitting an energetic gamma ray of 2.7 MeV followed by a beta decay to form magnesium-24. Half life is only 15 hours, so this isotope is not a long-term hazard - indeed it has medical applications. Nevertheless, the presence of sodium-24 further necessitates the use of the intermediate coolant loop between the reactor and the turbines.
        As you can see, the author had a hard time finding significant disadvantages.  The overall safety of the IFR concept is remarkable. gss

Q. Can the IFR be sufficient in itself to solve the energy crisis and global warming problems?

Blees writes:

I urge you to consider whether we really need a range of energy sources or whether this idea is a vestige of years of desperation and political correctness. I too pretty much took it as a given that we need a range of energy resources until I got deeply into the IFR technology and gradually was able to look at that assumption more objectively than I ever did before. Conventional wisdom and political pragmatism compel us to embrace a range of sources, but there's no doubt whatsoever that IFRs could provide all the energy (not just electricity) that humanity needs for many hundreds of years just with the fuel we've already mined, safely and economically.

Q. Doesn't the use of sodium and "breeder reactor" create a political problem? After all, there was that 1995 Japan breeder reactor accident video.

The video is actually a recreation, and in order to get it on film they had to blow air through there to keep the smoke cleared, so the fire burned more energetically due to the air flow. Sodium actually burns at a pretty low temperature. This was NOT radioactive sodium, either, and they just went in and cleaned it up afterwards. But it created a political firestorm because they tried to cover it up. Sodium is NOT a deal breaker, not by a long shot

Q. What additional research do we need on the IFR before we build one?

There's not really a lot of research to be done on this. We just have to get off the dime and build them. The last step of the project that got short-circuited was the commercial scale pyroprocessing, but by the time Congress killed it the facilities had already been built and were ready to go. It's a pretty simple technology and had been used over the course of the years of the IFR research to make over 3,400 fuel slugs. We're not talking about large amounts here, either, only about a gallon a day for a 2.5 GW reactor. That's peanuts. I think it's important to stress not that research has to be restarted, which makes this sound undeveloped, but that we have to build one of them.

Q. How much would it cost to build a 1 GW IFR plant?

Competitive with dirty pulverized coal plants. But f you factor in the external costs of coal plants there's no contest, even if you don't include global warming!

The first one will probably cost around $1 to $2 billion. Sound like a lot? Read on...

You've probably read about the Meerwinds North Sea wind farm, and Pickens' proposed mondo wind farm. Using their own figures, the cost per gigawatt from them is going to be in the neighborhood of $15 billion. If you just look at the figures they like to throw out there it doesn't look that expensive because all they tell you is peak production, and they conveniently disregard capacity factors. But capacity factors is what it's all about: how much electricity they'll actually produce over time. Are you familiar with the Spanish mirror/tower solar generator? The amphitheater-like tracking mirrors that focus on a cooker at the top of a tower that turns a turbine? They're going to build several of them. The cost per GW? Probably in the vicinity of $30 billion! Again, there's that pesky capacity factor to take into account. Compare this to the expected cost of a 3rd generation nuclear reactor from Westinghouse at about $1 billion/GW, or even a 3rd generation ABWR that can be built (and are being built) for $1.2-1.4 billion/GW. The IFR could be expected to be in the same range, and you don't have to wait for the wind to blow or the sun to shine. So when you look at this, which technology do you think will win out if we can get past the political minefields? Why? Concentrated energy. There's nothing like E=mc2

Q. Some detractors say the costs for the IFR are too high to be practical.

Beware those people who toss out supposed facts and figures that they just pull out of the air or out of ancient history (nuclear-wise) which don't apply to modern systems of which they're usually completely ignorant. But it's important to be able to authoritatively shoot them to pieces, otherwise they muddy the issue like we see too often in today's media, where everything turns into a he-said, she-said instead of using facts to refute falsehoods. That applies to their time-worn arguments not only about the economics of nuclear power but of waste and safety and proliferation issues.

You can expect the fossil fuel industry to trot out experts who will tell you what a bad idea the IFR is. Should you believe them? Or should you believe the scientists who worked on the project for 10 years?

It would be great to have Congress ask the NAS to make an unbiased assessment because when it comes to a PR war, the fossil fuel industry will win.

Q. Isn't nuclear a bad word?

All the anti-nuclear activists harp on 2nd generation fiascos. Only a few third generation nuclear power plants have been built. There have been a few built in Japan and they're building more in Japan, China, and Taiwan.

Q. How reliable is the stuff in Blees's book about the IFR?

Blees spent around 10 years of his life writing it. Here's what Blees told me:

When I was writing this, Charles Till (who you know from the links you sent to Obama's campaign), George Stanford, and Yoon Chang all read and critiqued my book. Then they critiqued each other's critiques. And then they did it all again. George told me they wanted to make it "factually unassailable." I can tell you, after meetings with nuclear physicists and engineers from around the world, that they were pretty successful. In the meantime I was privileged to be tutored in this by the best in the world.

Q. How clean is an IFR plant? Does it emit any CO2?

IFRs don't put out any CO2 (although the employees exhale some). Usually people who make these arguments talk about how much
CO2 is released during uranium mining (none with IFRs), how much is released during construction (primarily from concrete production, which is responsible for 2-3% of CO2 emissions around the world but around 1% in the USA because we use less than most other countries compared to our other emitters), and how much is emitted from the vehicles used in the excavations, etc, as well as the amount emitted in the fabrication of the components. Of course these also apply to solar and wind generation facilities as well, don't they? Once our manufacturing facilities start running on electricity, and our vehicles start running on boron or, at the very least, carbon-neutral biofuels, then it'll be completely moot. This is one of those straw men tossed out there by anti-nuke people that doesn't hold water. The fact that we don't have to mine uranium at all for IFR plants kind of shoots it down in flames.

Q. Why does the USA build and run reactors so badly?  Too much unique engineering, no standardization, corrupt construction teams, corrupt or overly "streamlined" maintenance...

Then you DO know. All those problems led to the the horror stories of the past. We have to settle on one or two designs and address all those other issues. Now at least we have technology that can bring a lot of former antinuclear activists out of their now irrelevant mindset. Some who have read Blees's book have become big backers, people who were on the front lines trying to shut down nuclear plants in the past. It's not just technology that we have to have, though. If we're going to be responsible we have to set up an international regime to forestall diversion of fissile material.

Q. In the USA I think politically it would not be too hard to replace aging nuclear plants or coal plants with IFR's. One could argue the IFR could replace a Coal plant with less radiation and toxic pollution, and noisy train trips. I think building nuclear in green fields will continue to be hard for a while due to NIMBY groups. But there is space in those 3 square mile security zones for some new boxes.

Well, there's always the NIMBY thing, but much of the complex could be underground, especially in areas where you don't have to build cooling towers. And there's no smoke or any output. Besides, they can be stuck outside cities in the countryside. In France there's little objection to living near nuclear plants. With even far safer plants being built going forward, eventually people would understand the issues and come around. But there are now organizations ideologically opposed to anything nuclear, and they are very influential. They too have to either change their tune-very difficult-or else have their ideological stances deflated by facts. That may well prove to be one of the toughest battles, which is ironic since IFRs are what can actually eliminate fossil fuels. It is the environmentalists now fighting the  environmentalists!

Q. There are lots of people trying to prepare energy agendas for the Obama and McCain administrations right now. You should try to make sure IFR and other well designed nuclear plants are included.

You would hardly believe how hard the IFR supporters have been trying for months to hand this to Obama on a silver platter. It has been a huge frustration.

Q. We are spending trivial amounts on national energy research.   I think it should be a minimum of $100/american devoted to energy research, since every American will save that much in the near term if it is successful.   That would be $30 billion, and we could push forward on all these fronts.  In comparison to the $800 billion / year we spend on foreign oil alone that is likely to be a hell of a bargain.

Ironically the IFR is hardly going to take any money at all for research, we just have to build them. If we'd fund boron car research at Sandia Labs, where they're already considering it, we could likely have them coming to market in five years (based on conversations with one of their physicists). That would be huge!

Q. John Kerry argued against the IFR on grounds it would be a threat to non-proliferation efforts. Isn't that still true?

I think it really depends on your point of view. There is no objective way to prove which answer is right. There are only arguments.

This is not an easy subject and Blees spends a lot of time in his book discussing how you deal with this. If you want an in-depth answer, you should see his book. But basically, he argues that like the other problems, this one is political, not technological. And they are entirely capable of solution

One argument is that the genie is out of the bottle. Most of the other nuclear nations are building these now or soon will be. We have to ask ourselves: are we safer if we bury our head in the sand and hope their designs are safe from accidents and terrorists? Or do we lead the world in designing safe reactors and export our technology to other countries? While accidents and terrorists are important considerations, I think a more important point is this: Without active U.S. participation in organizing rational management of the nuclear fuel cycle, there will be a leadership void, and the technologies (uranium enrichment and spent-fuel processing) needed to produce weapons material will spread without international safeguards against misuse.

Or we can play devil's advocate and agree with Kerry and we'll just restrict the IFR technology only to countries who already have nuclear capability since it is those countries who also emit 80% of the greenhouse gases. So it wouldn't make things any worse if you did that. And you'd actually make things better because the material used in the IFR plants under normal conditions can't be used to make weapons. So the more you can get those countries to build new IFR plants instead of second generation nuclear plants, the safer we'll all be. So if you want to reduce the risk of nuclear proliferation and if you want to reduce the risk of a nuclear catastophe, canceling the IFR would work against your objective. If other countries are going to build a nuclear plant, you want them to build IFR plants. No question. It's in everyone's best interest. And it means more energy for everyone as we saw from the chart earlier.

On the other hand, IFRs could be used to make weapons-grade plutonium, so building them wouldn't necessarily contribute to non-proliferation, but it's not clear it makes things worse.

Expert bomb designers at Livermore National Laboratory looked at the problem in detail, and concluded that plutonium-bearing material taken from anywhere in the IFR cycle was so ornery, because of inherent heat, radioactivity and spontaneous neutrons, that making a bomb with it without chemical separation of the plutonium would be essentially impossible - far, far harder than using today's reactor-grade plutonium.

First of all, they would need a PUREX-type plant-something that does not exist in the IFR cycle.

Second, the input material is so fiendishly radioactive that the processing facility would have to be more elaborate than any PUREX plant now in existence. The operations would have to be done entirely by remote control, behind heavy shielding, or the operators would die before getting the job done. The installation would cost millions, and would be very hard to conceal.

Third, a routine safeguards regime would readily spot any such modification to an IFR plant, or diversion of highly radioactive material beyond the plant.

Fourth, of all the ways there are to get plutonium-of any isotopic quality-this is probably the all-time, hands-down hardest.

Q. Is it safe? How often can we expect to see a meltdown?

For the GE S-PRISM design, if the entire planet used IFRs, we can reasonably expect an accident once every 380,000 years according to the probabilistic risk scenarios calculated by GE.

Q. A former Alcoa executive said this about the IFR:

It is a great idea…..especially since the cost of uranium continues to rise significantly.  However, the first costs are very high and the political issues (breeder reactors) are still large, and the technology to convert the fission products to fuel is still not fully proven at commercial scale.  I think the reactor technology is well developed (small sodium cooled systems are used on some ships, I think) and the increased efficiency is well documented…..but the full cycle on a commercial scale will require a decade to prove.
If the waste issue could be solved, either via a realistic waste management system or by systems such as fast breeders then nuclear energy would be a costly, but viable option.  
Certainly worth continuing the discussion with the advocates.

George Stanford provided this response:

I would say the comments regarding schedule are realistic, unfortunately. The commercial demonstration should be a top national priority. I'll speculate that a private consortium involving GE might be able to do it.

I do not agree that nuclear energy would be "a costly option," especially given a level playing field (external health and environmental costs considered, for instance). Nuclear power is now competitive in many countries, and there is no reason to think that fast reactors, in the long run, will be significantly more expensive. They will require no mining, no milling, no enrichment, and the waste-management expense will be negligible. The raw material for the fuel (used fuel already on hand) is essentially free. Virtually the entire cost will be in infrastructure and operations.

It's likely if we made this a national priority, it could move a lot faster (like we did with the Manhattan Project).

The argument that it might take a long time is an argument for starting immediately. Nobody, even the critics, have suggested that waiting around makes it happen faster when we finally need to do it. We need to get out from under a "let's just pursue the quick fixes" mentality we have now. The time to do these longer term projects is before they are needed. Are we going to wait for our existing nuclear material to be depleted before it is a crisis? And then, once again, we will be too late. We need forward, visionary thinking in this country. It seems to be in short supply.

Here's what Blees wrote in response to my answer above:

I couldn't agree more. That said, I'm certain it could be done expeditiously and we could start building these things by the hundreds by 2015 or so. Meanwhile we could start building ABWRs and the other Gen III+ reactors so we could start shutting down coal plants. Nuclear waste is simply not an issue. And in terms of building both Gen III and IFRs in nuclear-capable countries, neither is economics. Or safety. Or proliferation.

Those who maintain that we don't have the technology are either ignorant of the facts or lying. Not to put too fine a point on it or anything. That's not something I'd just toss out there, but just between you and me that's the way I see it.

Q. Is there any real world experience in building commercial fast nuclear reactors?

We actually have some real-world experience in the building of commercial fast reactors. In 1972 what was then the Soviet Union built a sodium-cooled fast reactor on the shore of the Caspian Sea, in what is now west Kazakhstan. The BN-350, while capable of generating 350 MW of electricity, was instead set up for dual purposes. It produced 150 MW of electricity and the remainder of the energy was used for desalination, some 120,000 cubic meters of water per day. This was a prototype, designed to demonstrate the economic viability of such an integrated system, which it did quite successfully. Not only that, but the Soviets reprocessed the fuel in a pyroprocessing system much like the one envisioned by the Argonne project. A 1995 analysis by Argonne National Laboratory had this to say about the BN-350:

Experience has shown that the operation and maintenance costs (reliability, availability, capacity factor) of power generation for the BN-350 plant are economically competitive with traditional (fossil-fuel or light water reactor) power plants; however, the capital cost was high for this demonstration plant.

Investigations of pyrochemical processes for fast reactor fuel have resulted in enough information to proceed with the design of a production-scale plant.

Note the date: 1972! And people say that something the Soviets built 36 years ago should take another 36 years for us to try? By the way, we will need plenty of desalination plants as our population continues to grow toward 9-10 billion. We don't have 36 years to drag our feet.

Q. How could we ramp this up?

Blees wrote:

Leaving aside for a moment the timeline for Gen IV reactors, there are good Gen III reactors we could begin building today, and the waste is no longer an issue because clearly we'll be able to use it up in Gen IV reactors. My book (due to be published within a couple weeks, see my web site here) proposes a timeline that demonstrates that we don't even have enough nuclear waste to primary load as many Integral Fast Reactors (IFRs) as we could realistically build with a goal of virtually eliminating anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. ABWRs have recently been built and more are being built right now in Japan and Taiwan. It's a proven and certified design of Gen III reactor that is miles ahead (or kilometers, if you prefer) of Gen II reactors in terms of both safety and cost. And the new AP-1000 from Westinghouse and ESBWR from GE/Hitachi is even better, and will soon be certified in the USA. They have gone a step farther than even the ABWR in terms of passive safety systems that were inspired by the IFR research at Argonne National Laboratory. AP-1000s are already under construction in China. From a safety standpoint these are orders of magnitude safer than U.S. NRC requirements.

Q. What's the next step?

The commercial demonstration should be a top national priority. A private consortium involving GE might be able to do it as well.

Ideally, Congress should fund DOE to have GE build a demonstration plant built. In order to expedite certification and licensing by the NRC, the most expeditious way would be to build a reactor vessel for $50 million, stick it at a university or national lab, and instead of filling it with sodium fill it with water. Build a mockup of the fuel assemblies, also out of non-radioactive material, and use that setup-which would require no licensing-as a prototype to demonstrate to the NRC the efficacy of the systems. For example, the NRC would say, what happens if you drop a fuel assembly when refueling. So you'd go over and run through it with the prototype. Once the thing is certified, you could drain it and use it in an actual power plant, where a single module would produce 380 MWe. They're designed to be built in power blocks of 2 reactor vessels each, feeding one large turbine that would put out 760 MW. You could fire up the first power block as soon as it's ready, even as you build further ones at the same facility. All would share a central control room and recycling facility.

Other comments on the IFR

Comments from a nuclear and renewable energy engineering Professor:

A very interesting article.  There is quite a long history to the IFR as Steve points out.  My take on it is this.  The 80s and 90s were a disaster for any kind of development of nuclear energy in this country because "nuclear" not just "breeder" was a bad word.  (Here is where social behavior dictated decisions on technology for over 2 decades).  Its only now, when we're in a real squeeze with our pocketbooks and things like the threat of climate change that  all of a sudden make a little high level waste look not so bad by comparison to the alternatives.  In 2000, I was involved in a very large effort by the DOE to identify advanced reactor concepts that would be safer, more reliable, more economical and produce less waste than conventional plants.  It was called the Generation IV program.  The fast reactor was among 6 concepts downselected from hundreds.  The IFR is a fast reactor which means that it can breed plutonium for additional fuel and it can also be used to "burn" up heavy isotopes produced by the current fleet of reactors so that the storage burden can be significantly reduced.  But its just one of several fast reactor concepts, so the issue really using fast reactors.
Then DOE introduced this GNEP concept which is a plan to develop these fast reactors for burning wastes while producing new fuel.  Unfortunately, as Steve noted, Congress zeroed the budget for it this year and also, the National Academy issued a very negative report on it.  There are some problems with the GNEP concept that go beyond the reactor itself, but when this concept was presented by DOE, I myself was skeptical.  Not because it was a bad idea, but because the country wasn't ready for it.  As someone who has lived their entire career in a technology that was out of favor, I know that there is a lot of work to do to regain true acceptance for nuclear energy in this country and you have to walk before you run.  That is, we need to establish that the industry can build and operate the advanced light water reactors first before taking the leap to a breeder-burner system that brings in a lot of other issues like making, handling and safeguarding plutonium.  So its interesting that this is again more of a social issue than a technical issue.  People take a long time to forget or change their minds.  One reason that nuclear is coming into favor is because most of the opponents retired or died off.  We saw that in the attitude of students coming out of high school when about the year 2000, they starting coming to college with neutral to positive view of nuclear energy - it turns out that the biggest opponents of this technology were high school science teachers.  Its the same reason why half the cars in Europe run on diesel and none do here - it was a bad introduction in the 70s and people have long memories.  (BTW, this is why its so important that the PHEV makers get it right the first time or that technology will be shelved for another 20-30 years).  So people need to be comfortable with these plants again and you need to do it with advanced forms of conventional plants, and then move on to breeders.  There is time for that strategy.   If we could only figure out how to navigate the social landscape like we can the technical one, we'd be much further ahead.
By the way, I appreciate your e-mail on the issue of conservation and building energy use.  You're right on - all our energy saving devices and new supplies of energy is an enormous waste if we can't address basic wasteful practices.  The challenge for MMPEI is how to play in this game through research and education, which is our mission.  I've been trying to understand the conservation issue more and how gains have been made in the past. I haven't run across hard data yet, but most of the studies I"ve looked at indicate that most all of the improvements in energy conservation have been through technological improvements in efficiency, and very little related behavior (turning thermostats down, driving less, etc.).  The latter go in cycles but like dieting, most all people regress to old habits.  Devices don't go backward.  This is an interesting situation.  It seems to say that behavior modification is very difficult and perhaps the best strategy for true savings in energy, but rather to prepare people mentally for changes to come.

Comments from Bruno Comby, Ph.D., founder and President of Environmentalists for Nuclear Power:

"This excellent and fascinating book by Tom Blees is an easy-reader and a taboo-breaker, yet based on solid science. It shows the way to a new era for humanity and for our planet. A world with plentiful energy, respectful of the environment, awaits us if we make the right choices. As the author demonstrates, tomorrow's world will be powered by safe, clean, abundant and affordable nuclear power. All the technology that is needed is available right now to move from the carbon era to a clean nuclear era giving us access to a peaceful world with plentiful resources without harming the environment. The carbon age was a great step forward with the Industrial Revolution brought by coal and steam engines after the Middle Ages, but now it drives us into pollution, global warming, wars and scarcity of resources. Far from the usual gloomy outlooks on the future, this book presents real solutions to solve the main challenges humanity faces. This book is the most important book that has ever been written on sustainable development. We can build in a few decades a better world for 10 billion inhabitants and more. Stop lamenting about pollution, global warming and the difficult times ahead : read this book, it offers the solutions. A better world is possible rapidly, but only if we open our minds and develop the three key technologies that are readily available to change the face of the world in the 21st century, paving the way to a world where energy, transportation and resources are plentiful, clean, cheap and fully recycled, therefore environmentally friendly. You MUST read it ! It is not A revolution, it is THE revolution, THE way to go!"

Comments from a retired engineer:

As a pro-nuke, I did like this one. Thanks for the link and comments.

I read the posting and also went to the links he cited. I think his criticism of the Clinton administration for shutting down the Argonne's research on their Integral Fast Reactor (aka fast breeder reactor, FBR) is irrefutable. Development should be resumed! We were in the pack in the race to develop a fast we're far behind Japan and Europe in the pursuit

That said, it must be recognized that the Argonne fast breeder reactor was in the development stage when it was shut down. Japan and France are developing FBRs now although their work has been somewhat sporadic in the past. The two links are current reports on their nuclear operations and plans. They're comprehensive, hence rather long. (Nuclear Power in Japan): (Nuclear Power in France)

The goal of all three programs was, is to develop a nuclear reactor that produces electricity at a lower price than the boiling water and pressurized water reactors now being built.  Unfortunately, we're unlikely to see any of the proposed systems becoming commercial within 30 years from now. I'm unlikely to see it whether it works or not.

The reactor must be safe, passively safe, i.e. shut down without any intervention when operating limits are exceeded. All of the prototypes and designs are designed to meet this requirement. All of them use nuclear fuel that requires extensive chemical processing before it can be used in a fast breeder reactor whether the source is mined uranium ore or nuclear waste from reactors now operating . Initial fueling of a FBR will be expensive, very expensive but the fuel will last a long time, a very long time. If one compares the fuel cost per KWH over the life over the life of the charge, the FBR has a big advantage. I'm don't know the discount rate at which the long life advantage is eclipsed by initial cost.

Argonne selected sodium as the coolant as have the Japanese. Sodium is an excellent coolant that burns when exposed to air or water. Confinement is most important. As I recall, the Europeans are considering molten lead-bismuth, supercritical water in addition to sodium.

By contrast, the current generation of nukes use water, pressurized or boiling, as the coolant. It would burn you but not combust you.

I think we should have a goal of replacing coal fired generation with nuclear. John McCain's goal of 45 new nukes by 2030 is, I think, sound and attainable.

Obviously, the value one places on replacing coal depends on one's opinion of the effects of anthropogenic CO2 on climate and the effects of climate change on human well-being. I tend to agree with Kirsch and his citing Jim Hansen.

We oughta do it.

Comments from William Hannum who worked on the IFR;


The lengthy exchange among Tom Blees, George Stanford, Jerry Marsh, Tom Cochran, Steve Kirsch, Christopher Paine and others is most interesting, illuminating, and occasionally informative.  However, I fear the most recent exchanges have drifted into the debate mode.  Perhaps it would be wise to refocus.

For various reasons, I have not chosen to enter the discussion to date.  So let me try to refocus.

Reviewing the exchanges, I am struck by the resemblance of this discussion to the story of a group of blind men trying to describe an elephant, based on touch.  This may have been suggested by Jerry’s early reference to The elephant in the room; i.e., the dirty little secret that there is lots of nuclear material around, and ways to use these materials are known. 

The various viewpoints I see in these exchanges may be caricatured as follows:

Those of us coming from the nuclear power side see a world with a vociferous appetite for energy, and a standard of living based on ample, reliable, and affordable energy.  Since we do not wish to forego much of our standard of living, nor to deny access to an improving standard of living for others, we believe that we must move beyond the fossil fuel-based world economy.  Given the fact that we (the U.S.) have already burned through much of our own cheap oil, our national (economic) security underscores the need for non-fossil fuels.  We believe nuclear power is the only credible option.  In the long term, that requires fast reactors, and, given the stalemate on disposing of used LWR fuel, the fast reactor is essential even in the short term. 

Our friends from the NRDC (There are many with this view other than those at NRDC.  I use this as a convenient shorthand.), view the elephant from a different perspective.  If I may chance to characterize their view: They consider nuclear weapons to be bad things.  Nuclear weapons kill people and destroy things.  In the hands of irresponsible or evil people, nuclear weapons could destroy civilization as we know it.  Thus, control of nuclear weapons-usable materials (the most credible way to prevent the uncontrolled spread of nuclear weapons) must take priority over everything else.

We add to the mix those who are persuaded that burning of fossil fuel, and the attendant release of CO
2 , is a greater danger to civilization than would be decreased availability of cheap energy, and perhaps even a more immediate threat than a modest expansion of the nuclear weapons club.

This is not to say that these are mutually exclusive priorities.  We nucs recognize that nuclear materials must be controlled, and that preventing the uncontrolled spread of nuclear weapons is of extreme importance.  We also recognize that fossil-fueled plants present serious environmental challenges, and that increasing CO
2 levels may have some climatological impact. 

I’m sure those with the NRDC perspective share our concern for energy security, and clearly they are champions of environmental responsibility.

And many of those whose primary focus is CO
2 recognize the need to expand our energy supply.

So, our differences are primarily on emphasis and priority.  In this context, what should those of us from the nuclear perspective emphasize as the key points under discussion, to get our message across more clearly:

       Fast reactor recycle, while presenting some new challenges also presents several real advantages in the safeguarding of nuclear materials, and in simplifying other safeguards issues, to wit:

                Elimination (denaturing) and ultimate destruction of excess weapons materials;
                Elimination of stockpiles of used LWR fuels;
                Attendant improvements in inventory controls;
                Elimination of the need for additional enrichment facilities, and the ultimate elimination of existing enrichment facilities;
                Permanent elimination of the need for PUREX reprocessing.

       Fast reactors, and particularly the associated recycle facilities will need stringent safeguards, and we have work to do to develop and demonstrate the technology for this.  It will be appropriate to restrict the deployment of IFRs, just as the NPT has tried to restrict the deployment of LWRs and associated enrichment facilities.  This does not create a two-tiered world; it continues the existing two-tiers.
       Diversion of nuclear materials from a properly safeguarded IFR plant would be difficult, and getting weapons-usable material from IFR materials would require a PUREX type operation.  This would be about the most difficult method of approach by which a proliferator could obtain weapons-usable plutonium.
       The current NPT-IAEA arrangement, while it has been spectacularly successful, has its shortcomings.  It did nothing to hamper A. Q. Kahn from developing a substantial nuclear arsenal for Pakistan, or from selling this technology to North Korea, Lybia, Iraq, Iran, and probably Syria.  Without the contribution of the Nuclear Suppliers Club, the NPT-IAEA arrangement would be of very limited value.  Urgent diplomatic efforts are necessary to refresh the NPT to recognize current realities (including centrifuge enrichment), and hopefully to provide some enforcement capability. The U.S. must take a leadership position in this effort.
It is clear that technology by itself will not address proliferation concerns.  But what the IFR approach offers is: while adding one modest, new safeguards issue, this approach reduces or eliminates (in the long run) three major safeguards issues.  The basic safeguards issues can be classed as follows, in order of importance:

                 Issue                                       Impact of IFR

        Major issues                      
                 Excess weapons materials                  Eliminates
                 PUREX facilities                          Eliminates need
                 Enrichment facilities                     Eliminates need
         Modest concerns
                 Used LWR fuel                     Eliminates
                 Specialized nuclear facilities           No impact
                          Research reactors
                 IFR with recycle                          Needs safeguards
                 LWRs                                         Eventually might eliminate

There are also a number of side issues raised in the exchanges which may be noted. 

The cost of developing and demonstrating the technology, and the eventual cost of power from an IFR system can be debated endlessly, because such costs are difficult to anticipate.  However, for this discussion, these are irrelevant.  The cost of development and demonstration of the technology is currently justified as a Waste management issue; i.e., as an effective means of dealing with used LWR fuel.  Whatever the costs of developing and demonstrating the IFR approach prove to be, they are very small relative to the cost of a new Yucca Mountain in the Eastern U.S., as currently envisioned in the Waste Policy Act.

The eventual power cost is also easy to debate because it cannot be reasonably predicted at this stage.  However, the basic technologies appear to those of us who have been involved with them to be straightforward to engineer at a reasonable cost.  Ultimately, the system will have to compete, or will fail.  So be it.

The fairness issue: Will less developed, less stable countries be allowed to build IFRs with recycle?  The simple answer should be No. If the U.S., China, Japan, Russia, and a few other developed countries join France in getting the bulk of our electricity from nuclear power, and undertake a massive electrification program to displace petroleum use, there will be ample conventional fuels for developing countries.  If there is a need, packaged, sealed units for electricity can readily be developed.  Again, I see the proposition: if the technology is developed, everybody will want one as a distraction; a debating point without significance.  This is like saying that all nuclear weapons should be put under the control of some international bureaucracy, which could deal them out to whomever wants one.

A third diversion is the question of the history of fast reactor deployment.  George answered this earlier.  The reason the previous Breeder program failed was not because of the reactor, but the recycling technology (PUREX) was judged unacceptable.  In general, the fast reactors operated (and two are still operating) very well.  The problems have been operational, and never a major public hazard.

And the ultimate distraction is: Can you make a bomb with reactor-grade plutonium?  An excellent debating point, well documented in these exchanges.  But this has little relevance as to whether the IFR program is wise or not.  An industrialized nation can obtain better material.  A rogue nation would also work to obtain better material.  But a large scale terrorist group with reactor grade plutonium could cause a massive disruption, sufficient for their purposes, even if the device were a dud. 

All nuclear materials, including those associated with the IFR, will require safeguards.  The IFR has great potential for energy security, environmental responsibility (nuclear wastes, non-CO
2).  And, on balance, significant safeguards benefits.

Happy New Year to all.  I hope this is a year when we see action, not just debate, in nuclear power development and deployment.



For more information, see the list of References on my main IFR page

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