Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Confusion about Generation 4 Reactors

There is at present a great deal of confusion about Generation 4 reactors at the moment. In particular a cheer leading section for the Integral Fast Reactor (IFR) has emerged during the past few months. The IFR is a sodium cooled fast breeder reactor reactor that includes passive safety features. Like the LFTR the IFR features a negative coefficient of reactivity. As the reactors core temperature rises, reactivity drops and then stops completely. Thus a IFR would not experience core melt down due to a run away chain reaction. The core sits in a large pool of liquid sodium that serves as a heat sink that provides passive cooling to the reactor in the event of a shut down of the reactor cooling system.

The IFR's most significant draw back is the use of sodium as a coolant. The IFR probably will likely be less expensive than LWRs to build. It is unlikely that the the IFR can be manufactured at a cost that is competative with the LFTR. The LFTR core will be relative small. This greatly eases the problem transporting a LFTR from a factory to the power generation site. In contrast the large containment vessel for the IFR's passive safety system is probably too large for truck or rail transportation. Either the IFR containment structure must be transported by barge or it must be manufactured on site, adding to construction costs.

The community of interest in the IFR has not reached the point where details of IFR construction are examined carefully, and potential limitations noted. The IFR appears to be less aware of cost issues as an important factor in determining the future of their favorite technology. This is most decidedly not the case for Indian fast breeder reactors which will start being completed late in the next decade. The Indian anticipate that their fast breeder reactors can be built for as little as $1.20 per kW of generating capacity and that electricity from them can be marketed at four cents a kWh. At that point the Indian FBR will emerge as a major factor in the future of energy. It would be hard to imagine the Chinese ignoring the advantages of the Indian Fast Breeder Reactors. The Indians could very go into business building FBRs all over Southeast Asia, the Middle East and possibly Africa.

Indian reactor design undergoes constant modification as Indian nuclear Engineers continuously improve reactor designs. The Indians are now developing revolutionary 3 reactor designs. The FBR, that uses Plutonium oxide fuel and operates both as a uranium and a plutonium fule cycle breeder, A second fast breeder which will use metal rather than oxide fuel and will probably include IFR type features, and an Advanced Heavy Water Reactor which will be capable of breeding thorium fuel cycle fuel. Indian Labor costs will mean that all three reactors potentially will find a very wide spread market.

American built IFR will have a difficult time competing with Indian Fast Breeder Reactors. I have previously demonstrated that the bottom end of the factory built LFTR cost range would coincide with projected cost range for Indian Fast Breeders during the next decade. Since it is difficult to imagine a nation maintaining great economic power status with high cost energy/electricity, economic competition with India and China would probably impose on the United States and other advanced economies the lowest cost post-carbon energy solutions. Unless there is a major advance in IFR cost control, that solution will most likely be the factory built LFTR. The Asian solution may well involve the use of Fast Breeder Reactors, but that choice will impose some costs and other disadvantages.

Nuclear proliferation constitutes a second issue concerning Generation 4 nuclear reactors. I would again like to point out the thinking errors that presume that the development and deployment of nuclear technologies in the United States will lead play a causal role in the development of nuclear weapons technologies by rogue states and terrorists. In the case of rogue states low cost routes to obtaining nuclear technology already exist, and use of Generation 4 technology as part of a nuclear weapons program would confer penalties and disadvantages on the would be proliferator. In fact it might be seen as preferable that the would be proliferator choose to develop nuclear weapons through use of proliferation resistant and costly generation 4 technology, rather than low cost and technically unsophisticated graphite pile reactors, or uranium centrifuges. The use of the lower cost technology would more likely lead to success, while the choice of generation 4 technology as a proliferation tool, is very unlikely to increase proliferation risks, along with every other nuclear evil imaginable.

The word proliferation appears 9 times in Amory Lovins litle essay:"New" Nuclear Reactors, Same Old Story . According to Lovins as soon as an Integral Fast Reactors is turned on in the United States, nuclear weapons start rolling out of the back end and streight into the hands of insame, pro-terrorist rogue dictators. The moment the first IFR starts opperating in the United States, according to Lovins, Chavez gets atom bombs.
IFRs are often claimed to “burn up nuclear waste” and make its “time of concern . . . less than 500 years” rather than 10,000–100,000 years or more. That’s wrong: most of the radioactivity comes from fission products, including very-long-lived isotopes like iodine-129 and technicium-99, and their mix is broadly similar in any nuclear fuel cycle. IFRs’ wastes may contain less transuranics, but at prohibitive cost and with worse occupational exposures, routine releases, accident and terrorism risks, proliferation, and disposal needs for intermediate- and low-level wastes. It’s simply a dishonest fantasy to claim, as a Wall Street Journal op-ed just did,8 that such hypothe¬tical and uneconomic ways to recover energy or other value from spent LWR fuel mean “There is no such thing as nuclear waste.” Of course, the nuclear industry wishes this were true.
Needless to say, Lovins does not bother with fairness or truth. That is not the Lovins way.

Lovins is the soul of subtlety compared to Australian "Green" Jim Green. Pronuclear bloggers in Australia have taken a shine to the IFR, and Green is going to set everyone straight. Green spends a little time discussing thorium, but it is clear he knows nothing about the LFTR and next to nothing about Thorium. Ignorance never stopped the Friends of the Earth from opposing nuclear power before. Why should it now:
The use of thorium, instead of plutonium, as a nuclear fuel doesn’t solve the weapons proliferation problem. Irradiation of thorium (indirectly) produces uranium-233, a fissile material that can be used in nuclear weapons.

The US has successfully tested weapons using uranium-233 (and France may have too). India’s thorium program must have a nuclear weapons component — as evidenced by India’s refusal to allow IAEA safeguards to apply to its thorium program.

Thorium-fuelled reactors could also be used to irradiate uranium to produce weapons grade plutonium.

Some proponents of nuclear fusion power falsely claim that it would pose no risk of contributing to weapons proliferation.

In fact, there are several risks. These include the use of tritium, a radioactive form of hydrogen, as a fusion power fuel. This raises the risk of its diversion for use in boosted nuclear weapons, or, more importantly, the use of fusion reactors to irradiate uranium to produce plutonium or to irradiate thorium-232 to produce uranium-233.

Fusion power has yet to generate a single Watt of useful electricity but it has already contributed to proliferation problems.
Whooo! Green goes well beyond ignorance. Mr. Green appears to have never encountered the concept of neutron economy. If you are running a thorium cycle reactor and you borrow your neutrons to radiate U-238 to make plutonium, where is your new U-233 going to come from? Can you imagine running a thorium cycle LFTR and using it to produce Plutonium-239? Green also has a novel take on the LFTR Tritium problem. Tritium can be diverted for use as a nuclear weapons booster! Then tritium becomes an excuse for a few remarks about fusion. Well tritium and thorium do have something in common. The two words both start with "t". Give Mr. Green am I for imagination. Give him an F for knowledge of nuclear technology.


Robw said...


Thanks for clearing up some of the IFR vs LFTR issues...very helpful.


Anonymous said...

I think we should use IFRs (or something similar) for one-third of our electricity requirements - LFTRs would get the other two-thirds...

Charles Barton said...

George, I am a sort of represenative of the Oak Ridge tradition. Oak Ridge scientists and engineers had strong reservations about sodium cooled reactors, and focused on the dangers of sodium coolant. The concerns were first expressed by the first ORNL research director, Eugene Wigner. Wigner has to be regarded as an authority because he invented the sodium cooked reactor. At ORNL they felt that a better, safer fast breeder would us Liquid Chloride Salts as its coolant/fuel carrier.


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