Thursday, October 30, 2008

IFR and LFTR Safety on the internet

One of the great Ironies of the nuclear renaissance, is the extent to which a small number of people who support a radical reactor design concept, the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR), have established an unique Internet knowledge base. People looking for information on reactor design, the uranium and thorium fuel cycles, and the relative merits of different reactors, the history of reactor design can find a great deal of relivant material on a relatively small number of internet sites. In particular, the Document Repository of Energy from Thorium offers an almost unique collection of documents related to the research and development of the Molten Salt Reactor (MSR). Many documents that are listed as unavailable by the Information Bridge, can be found on line in "Energy from Thorium" document collection. It would be hard for me to fully express my admiration to Kirk Sorensen for his creration of this collection. God only knows who many hours Kirk put into this effort, but it represents a monumental contribution to making important knowledge available. To this Kirk adds his discussions in his blog. Finally, the Discussion Form of the "Energy from Thorium" blog is of unusual quality in applying technical information, both from the document repository, but also from more recent research, to developmental issues for the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors (LFTR).

Thus anyone wishing to research the history of the MSR, or to become aware of current research issues related to the development of the LFTR would do well to turn to the discussion form. Considering the depth, quality and richness of "Energy from Thorium", I regard it as the best single web site on nuclear energy, bar none. While I am proud of my association with "Energy from Thorium" it is Kirk Sorensen who has made this site into the first class web site that it is.

There are a few other websites/blogs that should be mentioned in connection with knowledge of the MSR/LFTR enterprise. These include Bruce Hoglund's Molten Salt Reactor Interest page, Dr. Ralph Moir's Molten Salt Reactor Page, and my personal nuclear blog, the Nuclear Green Revolution. I cross port LFTR related material to Energy from Thorium, but some of my early MSR/LFTR posts were written before Kirk and I made this arrangement. In addition, many of my interests diverge from those of Energy From Thorium, so the reader will find material that is unique to Nuclear Green, as well as material that is common with Energy from Thorium.

I recently wrote a series on defense in depth on nuclear safety. I wanted to extend it to the Integral Fast Reactor (IFR), but could find nothing on the topic. Most of what what is written on has to do with its inherent safety features. The assertion is made that because of its inherent safety features, the IFR is inherently safe. This is a thinking error. An inherant safety feature dies not automatically mean that no accident is possible, just that no accident will occure because of a certain feature. Other reactor features could still cause an accident. Inherent safety means that the laws of nature will prevent an accident, but there is no law of nature that insures that core coolant containment for the IRF can't be breached. In fact a 1994 Argonne report on IFR research indicated that that a core tank rupture was a possibility, and the rupture of core supports was possible as well.

Thus literature on the IFR safety misleads by claiming inherent safety for the reactor rather than for its core. While the IFR safety features are impressive, other safety issues appear to have been under researched. issues of LFTR safety are frankly and vigorously discussed on Energy from Thorium, However, I do not even find acknowledgement that IFR safety issues exist in recent discussions in Internet discussions of the IFR. Despite this lamentable lack of safety awareness on the part of IFR advocates, the evidence is that the IFR is still the apple of the Department of Energy's eye. Despite the $20 + billion the United States has wasted on Liquid Sodium reactors so far, the DoE wants to waste even more, rather than give the LFTR a fair hearing.

My forecast is that the development of the IFR and its fuel cycle will eventually cost far more that the development of the LFTR will, and that the LFTR will prove far cheaper to build, more flexible to operate and will produce far cheaper electricity, than the IFR will. But the DoE has a long history of ignoring the virtues of MSRs while overlooking the vices of LMFBRs. There is no accounting for tastes in reactors.

That the IFR appears to have less Internet support than the LFTR should not reflect on its merits. That so much less information is available on the IFR than on the LFTR does reflect on the attitude of the supporters of of the IFR. That there is not significant public discussions on IFRs that can be accessed by the public through the internet does seem to betray a lack of safety concern, a lack of a IFR safety culture. That there are identified safety issues in IFR research reports that are not also mentioned in public discussions of IFR safety, raises serious questions about the safety of the IFR enterprise.

In contrast. internet discussions on the LFTR frequently featured impassioned arguments about its safety. Safety related debates feature not only questions about ORNL safety assumptions, but raise new safety issues. This questioning of LFTR, far from discrediting the LFTR as a research direction, actually demonstrate that its advocates are not oblivious to safety issues and demand that future LFTRs be made safe.


Ray Lightning said...

Hi Charles

I think you have just crossed the line and started to spread FUD on the IFR design.

I am no nuclear scientist, but the fast reactor design has a significant following across the globe in several countries. India and Russia have an advanced fast reactor program. All these designs are converging on something like the IFR. Even though the LFTR design seems to have a good fan following on the web, the IFR is doing quite well in peer reviewed nuclear conferences and journals.

The IFR project itself has indeed been a great success, the decision to end the project was purely a political decision. Every single step in the reactor design is understood and tested. We even have commercial designs (such as the GE's S-PRISM reactor) which can be built straight away.

It was a pity that the MSR concept didn't get as much attention as it deserved. I hope this will change in the future, and that we will have significant R&D support on this. But as a simple matter of fact, the MSR design is a couple of decades behind the IFR, and is not as ready for rapid deployment as the IFR.

The passive safety features of the IFR are just as good as the LFTR. The pyroprocessing method of reprocessing is integral to the reactor design, it is not an external reprocessing plant. And nuclear fissile material cannot be isolated easily.

When you talk on non-proliferation aspects or the safety features of IFR design, your argument stops carrying too much meat.

The design of IFR is quite simple as well, eliminating the need to use high temperatures or high pressures. It will probably end up being cheaper than the LWR design. The safety issues of molten Sodium are blown way over the top.

You should check out the book of Tom Blees : Prescription for the Planet. This book is going to earn quite a few converts to nuclear energy in the future.

Charles Barton said...

Ray, I still believe that there are serious issueswith the IFR. To much ismade of its inherent safety features, while too little is made of of other safety issues. There are problems with the Uranium fuel cycle, that are have not been addressed. I think not enough attention has been paid. The IRF requires fuel reprocessing, and the reprocessing system is far from proven. The IFR is in my estimation not ready for prime time.


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