Do you think our country's energy policy is in good hands now that the American Clean Energy and Security (ACES) climate bill has passed the House? I'm very worried and I think you should be too. Experts fret about balancing energy, environment, and the economy. But there is a way to have all three at the same time if we are willing to take a fresh look at an old technology. And that great solution is nowhere to be found in the ACES bill.
First, let's start by assuming science of global warming is correct. We'll see later that we'd want to do exactly the same thing even if we didn't believe in global warming at all.
To stop global warming, we must virtually eliminate the use of coal worldwide
Dr. James Hansen, one of our nation's leading experts on global warming, is very clear about the necessary attributes of any solution: we must stop building new coal plants immediately and start retiring existing coal plants worldwide. If we cannot virtually eliminate coal worldwide within a couple of decades, then the sum total of all of our other efforts to reduce our carbon footprint will be about as effective as rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.
The "worldwide" requirement is critical. The best way, and for all practical purposes, probably the only way, to get other countries to abandon coal is to give them a seemingly magical new technology that is lower cost than coal, with the same 24x7 baseline power reliability, but without the CO2 emissions. Existing coal plants could be "upgraded" simply by replacing the "burner" with a the new technology.
We invented a superior power generation technology in 1974, but killed it for political reasons in 1994
The good news is we have such a magical power technology. The big surprise is that it isn't new. It's old. It is a fast nuclear reactor known as the Integral Fast Reactor (IFR) that was developed by a team of hundreds of scientists working for more than 20 years at our top government national laboratory for nuclear energy (Argonne National Laboratory, at its branches in Illinois and Idaho).
The bad news is that the IFR development was abruptly canceled in its final stages in 1994. A decision was made in the early weeks of the Clinton administration by people who formerly worked for the oil and natural gas industry to cancel the project. The three reasons publicly given for canceling the program were all based on misconceptions. Since then we haven't done a damn thing to exploit their marvelous invention.
The convenient solution invented at Argonne is simple: instead of spending billions to dispose of our nuclear waste, we can re-use that "waste" to generate power by using advanced "fourth generation" nuclear power technology. Using just our existing nuclear waste, we can power the entire planet for centuries.
Our uranium "waste" is our biggest and most valuable energy resource
Did you know that our uranium waste is our nation's #1 energy resource? In fact, just in the depleted uranium (DU) waste alone (the stuff left over after natural uranium has been enriched), we have more than 10 times the extractable energy than we have from coal in the ground!
Using fast reactors (a type of fourth generation nuclear), we can make use of this "waste" and extract enough energy to power the entire planet (at the current usage rate) for 700 years. After 700 years, we can extract uranium from seawater. There is enough uranium in seawater to power the entire planet forever (we will be burned alive by the Sun before we run out of nuclear fuel).
Yet the Department of Energy (DOE), due to an admitted lack of funds to properly study the problem, currently plans to spend $428 million to permanently get rid of the DU. Such an action would be as nonsensical as Saudi Arabia suddenly deciding to pay someone to destroy all their oil reserves!
Hopefully, someone at DOE will stop this from happening. It is directly contrary to the recommendation of a National Academy of Sciences committee (specifically requested by the DOE in 1991 to study this issue) that fuel retrievability should be extended to a reasonable time (on the order of 100 years) to avoid foreclosing alternative fuel strategies that may be in the national interest.
The IFR is superior to today's nuclear technology in every respect
Fast reactor nuclear power designs, such as the IFR, are more than 100 times more efficient than our existing light water nuclear reactors (LWRs). The waste they produce is minimal, short-lived, and relatively easy to safely store: a factor of 500 less in space-time requirements than the waste from our existing nuclear reactors. If an American used nuclear power their entire life, they would produce enough nuclear waste to fill a soda can.
The IFR is inherently safer than existing reactors: they can't melt down because the laws of physics prevent it. They are also objectively more resistant to use in weapons proliferation than existing reactors and also substantially more proliferation resistant than the far more expensive alternatives that we have already decided are perfectly safe (such as the $10 billion we are currently spending on the AREVA MOX plant in South Carolina).
LWRs are very safe and the nuclear industry is one of the nation's safest working environments. It is safer to work at a nuclear power plant than in the manufacturing sector and even the real estate and financial sectors! Yet, IFRs are better than LWRs in every aspect, including safety. Here are a few excerpts from emails from former Argonne Lab associate director Charles Till regarding the safety of IFR reactors:
These [safety] effects are not theoretical or subject to informed challenge. They have been proven by full-scale experiments in the assemblage of fast reactor test facilities in Idaho by Argonne National Laboratory.
The ultimate point is that no radioactivity will be released. Period. Under any circumstance. And under even very, very unlikely circumstances which would lead to a mess in other reactors, the IFR will not even incur damage.
IFRs also meet the four requirements (transparency, security, waste, and proliferation) that President Obama recently laid out as a pre-requisite for using nuclear energy. Till pointed this out four years ago.
Even though the initial capital costs of these plants are high, over the 60 year lifetime of the plants, they are a small fraction of the cost of generating power from renewables.
Other countries are building fourth generation nuclear reactors
Russia, China, and India are building fast nuclear reactors now and the French plan to begin construction in 2012 with completion by 2020. Japan plans to build a prototype fast reactor by 2025.
Russians scientists independently found the same thing the scientists at Argonne have been saying for years: these plants are safer and less expensive to build and operate than existing nuclear plants and they solve the nuclear waste problem while providing a virtually inexhaustible power source. The Russians also realized a key point that the 2003 MIT report on the Future of Nuclear Power had missed: that if nuclear power grows faster than people think, large scale deployment of fast reactors will absolutely be required in as little as 25 years from now (see the first paragraph of BN-800 as a New Stage in the Development of Fast Sodium-Cooled Reactors).
In the US, the complexity of understanding the science combined with an abundance of misperception and misinformation has stalled any progress on fast nuclear technology
Dr. Hansen and scientists at MIT are urging Obama to build fast reactors now. House Members Jerry McNerney (D-CA) and Judy Biggert (R-IL) agree.
But what about Al Gore? The environmental groups? What do they think? The problem is that there is so much misinformation in the nuclear space and the science is so complicated that it takes a reasonably large investment of time to really understand what is going on so you can sort truth from fiction. Al Gore has looked at fast reactors, but hasn't taken a position on the issue and it's likely he never will. The top environmental groups have either been too busy to be briefed, have no nuclear expert on staff qualified to be briefed, or have already taken an anti-nuclear position before the briefing and have no interest in impartially weighing the facts.
At the most recent Aspen Institute Energy Forum held March 25-28, the experts talked about how difficult tackling all three issues together: environment, economy, energy. Sure, I agree. It's difficult to impossible without the IFR. But the IFR enables us to solve all three simultaneously. But it wasn't brought up by anyone, even though the attendees acknowledged nuclear had to be part of the solution. This is a big problem that the "big thinker" experts assembled at Aspen seemed to be completely unaware of the world's best nuclear design.
The former top civilian nuclear guy at DOE thinks we are nuts for not pursuing this technology
Ray Hunter was Deputy Director of the Office of Nuclear Energy, Science and Technology in the U.S. DOE. At the time of his retirement in 1998, he was the most knowledgeable senior person in the government on civilian reactor research and development. He spent more than 29 years in DOE and predecessor agencies working on developing advanced nuclear reactors for civilian nuclear power applications. He's seen it all. He's heard all the arguments from every side multiple times. His conclusions are the same as Hansen; he thinks it is a huge mistake that we are not pursuing the IFR technology we invented at Argonne.
On December 23, 2008, Hunter wrote a letter to Senators Reid, McCain, Bingaman, and Mikulski explaining that before his retirement, he was the Director of the Office of Nuclear Energy at DOE and pointing out that "the energy content contained in LWR spent fuel and depleted uranium resulting from weapons production and enriched LWR new fuel production exceeds all the known oil reserves in the world." He pointed out that we have the technology to safely and securely harness that power and eliminate our nuclear waste at the same time. Hunter received no response to his letter; Senator Mikulski's office thanked him for sharing his thoughts but did not respond to any of his comments. But I don't blame these Senators at all. It's unlikely that any US Senator ever saw Hunter's letter; in each case, a staff person decided that his thoughts were not significant enough to bring to their Senator's attention.
It's not clear that we can rely on the DOE to make the right decisions
I recently wrote to the DOE offering to have the scientists who were directly involved in the IFR brief Secretary of Energy Chu on our most important source of energy. I received this email response from the DOE that a briefing was unnecessary as there are many people in DOE who are knowledgable about the IFR and that "the IFR definitely lives on." I said if that was true, then how it is possible that DOE wants to dispose of all the fuel that could be used to power these reactors? I received no response to my question.
I then asked Hunter how could it be that both Secretary Chu and DOE are saying fast reactors are good, while at the same time announcing plans to destroy the material that could be used to power them. I received the following response:
The main reason that nuclear energy development is so screwed up in DOE is that critical elements e.g. nonproliferation, waste, and nuclear R&D are in separate organizations all reporting to the Secretary. It requires real head knocking to integrate the pieces to have a rational program and there is no one in DOE sufficiently interested in nuclear to perform this task.
The problem is made worse by individual budgets requested and approved by Congress. In addition, the waste issue encompasses both civilian and defense waste. For example the depleted uranium stored as uranium hexafluoride at Portsmith, Ohio; Paducah, Kentucky; and Qak Ridge, Tennessee is a result of enrichment for weapons and naval reactors, enrichment for LWR commercial reactors and enrichment for DOE and University test reactors. The nuclear energy program should have requested funds to retain all of the material in a safe store condition as a future resource as you suggested. Since the material is under the waste program, funding was requested from Congress to dispose of it.
My guess is there wasn't any internal discussion on this matter. You might note from my resume that I had the assignment to address safety concerns about storage of the depleted uranium and an action planned was initiated to correct deficiencies and retain the material for possible future use.
Steve, I don't know who you talked to or sent a letter to at DOE regarding the IFR, but the response you got is baloney.
Sadly, many people now at DOE are content to not make any waves. They just do what they are told.
The disenchantment with the DOE is not just from people inside the DOE, but the dysfunction inside the DOE is also negatively impacting the quality of talent at our national labs. I received this email from a scientist who spent 33 years at Argonne including 10 years working on the IFR:
I was there at the birth of the IFR, in late 1983, and still there at the cancellation in 1994.My main beat was demonstration of the pyroprocess fuel cycle, which morphed into "EBR-II fuel treatment" post-1994. I was on the U. Chicago bid team which competed for the INL contract in 2004.When BEA wonthe contractand assumed command of the entire Idaho site in early 2005, ANL-W went away and was absorbed into INL.To this day most of the ANL-W people, and I think ALL of the key people who haven't retired or gone on, are very disenchanted with the inability to get much work done in the DOE environment.
I could only take it as an INL employee for nine months. When, on a Friday in November 2005 the Vice-President for Research at Idaho State U. said "Mike, you ought to just end this. Come on over to ISU full time". I said I'd be there the following Monday. 33 years, and I resigned inan hour.It couldn't have worked out better for me. I'm able to close out my career working with young budding nuclear engineers andbuilding research programs.
You asked about when the disenchantment began. I'd say around 1990. I think it was about then that the FBI rolled into Rocky Flats. Adm. James Watkins (retired, then DOE Secretary) became convinced that there was an inadequate "safety culture" in DOE facilities, and thus were spawned "Tiger Teams"-- composed of literally dozens of consultants who would descend on a major facility for two weeks. Months of preparations went into their much-feared visit. But that was only the tip of the iceberg. All sorts of new DOE orders related to safety, environment, and QA began to appear. The workplace became so highly proceduralized that it was increasingly difficult to get anything done.
So in my first 20 years or so, being on the Till team meant you were working on important things, and the work was getting done, and the results were exciting. The conception of the IFR in the days following cancellation of the Clinch River Breeder Reactor project, the birth or more accurately the rebirth of the pyroprocess, the EBR-II safety tests in 1986 -- damn those were heady days.
Why are other countries pursuing our invention while we aren't even talking about it? We seem to be pretty good at spreading misinformation and hanging on to old preconceptions especially when it relates to nuclear.
When DOE evaluated all the nuclear technologies, the IFR came out as #1
When we look at things objectively, we get the right answer. When DOE adequately funds a study, they do great work (it's when they don't adequately fund a study like the DU disposal study cited above that they have problems).
In 2001, as part of the Generation IV roadmap, the DOE tasked a 242 person team of scientists from DOE, UC Berkeley, MIT, Stanford, ANL, LLNL, Toshiba, Westinghouse, Duke, EPRI, and many other institutions to evaluate 19 of the best reactor designs on 27 different criteria. They spent a year doing this. So this wasn't just "a" study. This was the mother of all nuclear studies; the most comprehensive comparison of nuclear designs ever done. The IFR ranked #1 in their study which was released April 9, 2002.
People outside the US have recognized the importance of fast reactors and the IFR
The Russians very clearly understand how significant the IFR invention is to the future of energy. Len Koch, who was the IFR project manager at Argonne, was awarded the Global Energy International Prize by Russian President Vladimir Putin in Russia in June 2004 for his work on the IFR. The prize is awarded "to assist international cooperation in solving today's most important problems in the field of power generation."
Koch recently sent me the following note:
People from other countries who have looked at the facts objectively came to the same conclusion Russia, India, France, China, Japan, and South Korea did. Prominent Australian climate scientist Barry Brook admitted that he spent months educating himself on fourth generation nuclear before he came to the same conclusion Hansen did. In fact, before Brook heard about fourth generation nuclear, he thought the global warming problem was intractable because his own calculations confirmed the observations of many others (including Energy Secretary Steven Chu, MIT President Susan Hockfield and US Senator Lamar Alexander) regarding the necessity of nuclear power due to the problems with renewables being able to scale to meet our energy needs. With fourth generation nuclear in the mix, Brook has gone from being a climate pessimist to being an optimist about our ability to replace our existing energy sources with carbon-free power. He's written extensively about the IFR on his site, more so than any climate scientist on the planet. The Green case against nuclear power is based largely on myth and dogma Noted UK environmental writer Mark Lynas did the same thing Brook did...objectively looked at the evidence. He came to the same conclusion as Brook and Hansen. He wrote about his "conversion" in an article in the Sunday Times on September 28, 2008:
A POUND OF URANIUM (ABOUT THE VOLUME OFA TENNIS BALL) CONTAINS THE ENERGY EQUIVALENT TO ABOUT 5,000 BARRELS OF OIL! And we have about a MILLION TONS OF URANIUM in storage (as waste), from which we have only extracted about 1% of the contained energy.
We understand what must be done to extract that remaining energy, but we quit trying to learn and demonstrate how to do it in an acceptable manner. We need to reinitiate the program that we started more than 60 years ago. It will require a the support and leadership of the Government. We do not even have an operational Fast Reactor in our Country now. The Government shut-down the two which we had.
Just a month ago I had a Damascene conversion: the Green case against nuclear power is based largely on myth and dogma. My tipping point came when I discovered just how much nuclear power has changed since I first set my mind against it. Prescription for the Planet, a new book by the American writer Tom Blees, opened my eyes to fourth-generation "fast-breeder" reactors, which use fuel much more efficiently than the old-style reactors, produce shorter-lived waste and can also be designed to be "walk-away safe".
Lynas wrote how he was criticized by his peers for supporting nuclear, but privately some of them admitted that they agreed with him.
In our own country, GE-Hitachi Nuclear Energy and a consortium of America's major corporations (including Babcock & Wilcox, Bechtel, Westinghouse, and Raytheon) came to the same conclusion. They have a reactor design, the PRISM, that is ready to be built based on the original Argonne IFR design.
There is a lot of misinformation about nuclear
After the bill was drafted, Lisa Price, senior vice president of GE-Hitachi testified before the House Science and Technology committee on June 18, 2009 about the benefits of IFRs. The bill hasn't changed. Today's nuclear designs are substantially better than the reactors built 30 years ago. For example, the new Babcox and Wilcox mPower reactor can be constructed in only 3 years, is scalable (it can produce as little as 125 megawatts making it economical for smaller regions), air-cooled (so the water needs are minimal), and it can store its waste underground for 60 years. Twelve reasons we should spend $3B to build a demonstration IFR plant today Here are my top 12 reasons as to why the IFR (and pyroprocessing of LWR spent fuel) is the right thing to do now for the nation and for the world:
"Even though nuclear supplies the vast majority of our carbon-free power and even though fourth generation nuclear is more than 100 times more efficient as existing nuclear, and even though the waste products are minimal and short-lived, and even though these reactors have been demonstrated to be inherently safe, and even though these reactors can use our existing nuclear waste as fuel and virtually eliminate our $100 billion nuclear waste problem, and even though other countries such as Russia, China, India, Japan, and France are either building or planning to build these plants, and even though we can power our entire planet for thousands of years from our existing uranium resources without any CO2 emissions, and the energy content contained in LWR spent fuel and depleted uranium resulting from weapons production and enriched LWR new fuel production exceeds all the known oil reserves in the world, and even though the US Congress voted to fund fourth generation nuclear every year for 10 years from 1984 to 1993, we haven't spent any time discussing the role of fourth generation nuclear in this Congress or in any Congress in the last 15 years and this is probably very short-sighted of us."
- If you're going to build new nuclear plants, IFRs are superior to LWRs in every dimension. Experts I've talked to agree that nuclear has to be an important part of the energy mix going forward. It's hard to argue this isn't the case since even 30 years after the time we built our last nuclear plant, nuclear is still supplying 70% of the clean power in the US. Fourth generation reactors such as the IFR are simply a "better" nuclear in every respect: lower cost, more efficient, less waste, all the waste is short-lived, inherently safer (it doesn't need any active safety systems since the laws of physics shut it down if something goes wrong), and the nuclear material is unsuitable for use in weapons so it is inherently more proliferation resistant. That's why the IFR ranked #1 in the DOE's comprehensive study of alternative nuclear reactor designs.
- IFRs are the safest, most cost-effective solution to our nuclear waste problem. IFRs can efficiently consume the waste we've already generated from existing light water reactors so they are simply a cleaner, safer, and more cost-effective solution to "dispose" of our nuclear waste than any of the alternatives that have been proposed. Rather than trying to secure that waste for 10,000 years, IFRs reuse it and eliminate all the long-lived nuclear waste. The head of civilian nuclear at DOE spent years trying to get the DOE to do the right thing and failed for political reasons.
- In order to wean other countries off of coal, you must offer them a technology that is more attractive than coal or they aren't going to switch. The IFR technology can achieve that. Renewables can't (which is why Germany is still building coal plants even though they want to get rid of their CO2 emissions). China and India will experience tremendous energy growth and only the huge energy potential of IFRs are a realistic alternative to coal.
- Even long-time vocal critics of nuclear power such as Amory Lovins agree that investing in the IFR now as a "contingency plan" in case renewables and/or carbon capture and sequestration don't work out is sound public policy. Even ardent believers in renewables concede that we cannot take anything, including nuclear, off the table.
- The IFR (called the PRISM) has already been Authorized to Build by Congress in the 1992 Energy Policy Act. GE-Hitachi has had a design ready to build for years (the S-PRISM).
- IFR power is virtually inexhaustible and more reliable and predictable than renewable power. IFRs can supply humanity's energy needs for millions of years if we are willing to mine additional uranium beyond what we already have on hand (which is sufficient for the next 700 years). Winds can change and die down. For example, a new report says that because of climate change, wind speeds are diminishing across parts of the United States, including a 10 percent drop in the Midwest over the last decade. The number of low or no wind days also has been increasing, according to the report by a team of scientists at Indiana and Iowa State universities. During the California heat wave and blackouts of 2006, wind's output dropped to 4% of rated capacity during peak demand - so effectively required 100% fossil or nuclear backup. Solar can be obscured by air pollution (such as the Atmospheric Brown Cloud that grows bigger every day and is "dramatically" reducing sunlight in many Chinese cities). Hydro power can be diverted or dry up. But nuclear just keeps humming 24x7 for millions of years with no emissions. If you want a nice contingency plan for when renewables fail, nuclear is it. It isn't dependent on any external factors. To ignore nuclear as an important part of the energy mix would be irresponsible public policy.
- Nuclear power is cheaper than power from renewables and soon will be cheaper than coal. A nuclear plant costs more up-front to build than a wind or solar plant, and they take longer to build, but they have low operating costs and they last 60 years or more making them a far better financial investment than renewable power typically by a factor of 2. For example, if you use this calculator to compare an AP1000 to GE 2.5 MW XL wind turbines with pumped storage for load management, in North Dakota you get $13 billion/GW for the wind option vs. a max cited figure for a US AP1000 (a new nuclear reactor from Westinghouse) of $7 billion. If the AP1000 lives up to its promises of $1000 per KW construction cost and 3 year construction time, it will provide cheaper electricity than any other fossil fuel based generating facility, including Australian coal power, even with no sequestration charges.
- The heat from IFRs can be used to reprocess transportation fuel practically for free. The IFR gives us more options for ending our oil addiction. If we move to boron-powered cars, the fuel can be recycled in a IFR for nearly free, since the high temperatures are already there. You can't do that with a renewable plant.
- Existing coal plants can be economically converted into clean nuclear plants. No country has to abandon the huge investment they've made in coal plants. As Felix Salmon pointed out in his blog "Nuclear Power: Going Fast," you'd just replace the burner and the control room. This makes the economics irresistible even if you don't give a damn about global warming.
- To reduce the concerns about proliferation, the plants could be jointly owned and operated securely by the US and the host country. Or we can just restrict the technology to countries who already have nuclear power. However, there have been 0 people killed since the dawn of time due to nuclear proliferation from a power plant. An IFR would be the last place you'd go to get material for building a weapon because you'd have to invent technology that doesn't exist to purify the material to make it suitable for a weapon.
- Nuclear can be deployed very rapidly. About two thirds of the currently operating 440 reactors around the world came online during a 10 year period between 1980 and 1990. In southeast Asia, reactors are typically constructed in 4 years or less (about 44 months)
- The amount of waste generated in an IFR is minimal; all the reprocessing is done on-site. With reprocessing, if an American used nuclear power their entire life, they would produce enough nuclear waste to fill a soda can.
- Pyroprocessing is at least 5 times cheaper than PUREX The French PUREX method for reprocessing nuclear waste is too expensive to be practical. The IFR method is much cheaper and the facility can be located within the plant so the nuclear material never leaves the plant.
- Pyroprocessing doesn't create a proliferation risk The PUREX method for reprocessing can easily be "adjusted" to produce pure plutonium. This is impossible to do using pyroprocessing. We can't just bury our heads in the sand an pretend nuclear and reprocessing is going to go away. The genie is out of the bottle. If we continue to keep our pyroprocessing technology secret, the world will move to PUREX because there is no other viable option. So by sequestering our best nuclear technology, we are making the world less safe.
- we'd make lots of money (the return on our capital investment in the plant)
- we'd create lots of high paying jobs to build these plants and the parts for them and to operate them
- we'd reduce our trade deficit
- we'd get rid of our nuclear waste
- we'd help get industry going again
- by eliminating coal plants, we'd improve our air quality (for example, did you know that 25% of the particulates in the air in California come from China and that the Atmospheric Brown Cloud over China now has intercontinental reach with effects felt world wide)
- we'd wean ourselves off of gasoline onto a re-usable energy carrier (boron) that has no emissions that costs only 50 cents a gallon (see p. 146 of Prescription for the Planet). No more having to drill for oil.
- we could eliminate our dependence on foreign oil
- Nuclear has to be an important part of the energy mix. Even the biggest proponents of renewables have conceded that point.
- The IFR is the best nuclear. The 2002 DOE study by 242 nuclear experts from all over the country selected by the DOE was quite comprehensive and definitive on that point.