THE INTEGRAL FAST REACTOR
COULD USHER IN THE HYDROGEN ECONOMY AND
SAVE THE PEOPLE OF THE UNITED STATES $2 BILLION A DAY
By Brian Downing Quig
In the advanced space development community it was accepted as an unchallenged assumption that hydrogen and electricity were the ideal energy mediums for the future. Each can easily and efficiently be converted to the other. Together they address all energy applications with virtually no pollution.
But hydrogen and electricity are not energy sources. They must be produced from energy sources. In space there is endless energy from the sun that can be captured by arrays using the thinnest metallic foil. On the earth such systems would be torn apart in seconds by weather. The big question is --- What energy source should be used on earth to produce these unquestionably desirable energy mediums. After digesting 400 peer reviewed articles I think I know!
The math is quite simple. When one uranium atom fissions it releases more energy than the combustion of 10 million carbon atoms!
Twenty five years ago I opposed the present generation of light water slow neutron reactors (all U.S. commercial reactors are light water slow neutron reactors). I did so because of safety issues and the absence of an acceptable system for spent fuel disposal. I was wrong about safety. The safety record of the U.S. nuclear industry has been superlative. But the spent fuel solutions still appeared problematic --- until I discovered the INTEGRAL FAST REACTOR.
There is a team of scientists at the Argonne National Labs led by Dr. Charles Till that was assigned the task of eliminating the bugs in the present generation of commercial nuclear reactors. The technology they developed is so elegant that I know everyone who is concerned about the environment will love it. And those who are impatient to realize the hydrogen economy will love it more.
Dr. Till added recent innovations to a concept that originally thrilled Enrico Fermi and the original atomic pioneers. The pioneers envisioned that by using fast neutrons instead of slow neutrons, virtually unlimited amounts of energy could be produced from limited stocks of uranium. They called this reactor a breeder since what it did was turn unfissionable U-238 into fissionable plutonium 239 thereby breeding its own fuel. Less than one percent of natural uranium is U-235. At the current rate of usage all the fissionable U-235 will be depleted in 35 years. If this new technology is implemented, uranium need not be mined for 500 years. Existing stock piles will be more than adequate.
The Integral Fast Reactor:
1) is cheaper to build and cheaper to operate than water reactors.
2) is passively safe. It uses a metallic fuel that expands when it overheats, causing the volume to increase which decreases the neutron density to the point where the reaction is shut down by the laws of nature without operator intervention! Loss of coolant poses no threat because the thermal currents of the liquid sodium are sufficient to stabilize the reactor.
3) can be operated in a mode where it uses as its fuel the spent fuel of the water reactors. By far the most lethal nuclear waste on the planet is the spent fuel which is produced in the United States at the rate of 6 tons a day. Currently our government policy is to store this waste for 30,000 years (Yucca Mountain). Electric rate payers are assessed one mill per kilowatt hour of power produced by nuclear reactors to deal with nothing but these spent fuel rods --- to the tune of more than $800 million per year!
4) can be operated in a mode to burn the world's excess stocks of weapons grade plutonium. Twenty five IFRs, each requiring 10 tons of plutonium for start up, would transmute the world's entire declared surplus of 250 tons of weapons grade plutonium into a waste product that only needs 300 years storage. And while this process may take 40 or more years, from the first moment that the plutonium is irradiated it is effectively removed from use by potential rogue bomb terrorists. At that point a three foot thick hot cell wall is required to handle it, while before an 8 pound brick of metallic plutonium required for bomb making could be carried safely in any briefcase.
5) recycles all the long lived radioactive material on site. That is why it is called "integral". Once the initial fuel is loaded no fuel goes in and no waste comes out for the entire 70 year life cycle. This will greatly reduce the current 90,000 nuclear shipments a year on trains and trucks. At the end of the 70 years the nuclear "ash" of the IFR needs to be stored for only 300 years as opposed to 30,000!
6) is referred to as the ADVANCED LIQUID METAL REACTOR (ALMR) at General Electric where its commercial development is being disrupted by congressional mandate.
The US produces 22% of its electric power with 105 nuclear reactors located on 74 sites. Fifty five percent of US electric power is produced with coal. The Journal of the American Medical Association claims that 30,000 US citizens die each year from repertory illness due directly to this burning of coal for electric power. France produces 75% of its electric power with nuclear. Since France went nuclear, the country experienced a five fold decrease in air pollution!
If the US were to significantly increase its percentage of nuclear it would be presented with a unique challenge that is best met by our favorite energy medium --- hydrogen. To operate efficiently a nuclear reactor must run at a reasonably constant speed. Peak demand must be met during the day, but what can be done to store the considerable off peak energy at night?
I was sitting around a table at the Electric Power Research Institute with three past presidents of the AMERICAN NUCLEAR SOCIETY when hydrogen was discussed for 25 minutes as a promising candidate for the use of off peak energy (and it was not me who introduced the subject). These men wanted to fly AHA president, Roy McAlister, in for this meeting but Roy was in China at the time as a guest of the Peoples Republic.
My case can be made clear by one picture and one pie graph. The picture is of this writer at the controls of the EBR II experimental reactor at Argonne Labs West. EBR II is the prototype of the IFR. Just 30 feet below me is the reactor core. The IFR is basically a reactor core using a special metallic fuel submerged in a swimming pool of liquid sodium. The sodium shields the radioactivity. I mentioned this was elegant technology. There was no more radioactivity in that room than in your living room (I measured it!). Anyone standing near a spent fuel rod would not live long enough to read this page.
The pie graph is worth studying. The pie represents all obtainable energy within the US. The dark area represents potential energy derived from existing stock piles of depleted uranium ore used as a fuel in the Integral Fast Reactor (8.5 times the total U.S. energy reserve!!!). There is a rather large supply of environmentally undesirable coal, lesser amounts of oil and natural gas. What was a big surprise was how scant the amount of energy available from the current water reactors is if only U-235 is used. The IFR is the only reactor that can utilize U-238 and if that happens the indigenous energy of the US becomes six times as great! Note that hydro does not even rate a line on this graph. Solar, and wind energy contribute far less. That is why I think the optimum energy future of the US requires the IFR.
There is a very unscientific media fed phobia of anything nuclear in this country. Except for the slightest short lived perturbations following atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons there has never been a measurable increase in background radiation that our most delicate instruments could detect. If low level radiation was so harmful, it would make sense to filter radon gas which accounts for more than half of the 360 millirems exposure of average US citizens. The health of nuclear workers in the U.S. is measurably better than other occupations. They are essentially the only persons receiving even the slightest elevated dosage.
The IFR is clearly the environmentalist's dream come true and the environmental issue of the century. But there is trouble in paradise! The international energy cartel, which owns the uranium as well as the oil and natural gas has given the IFR the kiss of death. It favors energy sources that continue to rise in price not drop. In scientific terms the spent fuel is not really waste but very highly concentrated energy. The spent fuel rods if used as a fuel in the IFR would generate a revenue stream of $350 million a ton. At six tons a day storing this instead of burning it amounts to more than a $2 billion a day rip off!! That does not count the cost of storage for 30,000 years which is the only other alternative.
All bolded words represent hot links to additional sources which can be accessed on the AMERICAN HYDROGEN ASSOCIATION web site http://www.clean-air.org/ifr.html. Another good IFR site on the Internet is provided by UC Berkeley School of Nuclear Engineering http://neutrino.nuc.berkeley.edu/ifr.html. ARGONNE LABS can be found http://www.anl.gov/.
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