Thursday, February 18, 2010

International Panel on Fissile Materials Report Interesting but Still a Fizzle.

A new report from the so called International Panel on Fissile Materials appears to be directed against the Integral Fast Reactor, Barry Brook's favorite energy toy. The White Paper, titled Fast Breeder Reactor Programs: History and Status, offers a one sided account of Sodium Cooled Fast Breeders, their history and prognosis. One of the reports writer's Frank von Hippel, is a controversial nuclear proliferation talking head. Alex De Volpe who also worked with the Soviets on practical nuclear disarmament issues notes:
Frank von Hippel and Amory Lovins are two prominent outspoken opponents of plutonium demilitarization. Examination of their papers and presentations reveals that both tend to omit evidence and citations that contradict their position on the supposed weaponization qualities of reactor and demilitarized grades of plutonium. While short in relevant credentials, each has been actively impeding arms-control and nonproliferation measures described below.

De Volpe often claims the authority of Los Alamos weapons designer J. Carson Marks for his contention that so called Reactor Grade Plutonium mis weaponizable. De Volpi points to a 1990 paper by J. Carson Marks that stated:
Taking “weapon” to signify an object suitable for stockpile by a military organization, then heavily irradiated reactor plutonium would not be attractive for an arsenal of pure fission devices
De Volpe comment's
In Mark’s terminology, “pure fission devices” included essentially any type of nuclear weapon that proliferant nations might seek to develop. His phrase “heavily irradiated reactor plutonium” corresponded to what is now called “reactor-grade plutonium.” (During private, one-on-one discussions with Mark, he confirmed his defining 1990 conclusion, and he didn’t know how or why it was omitted in the 1993 version.)

Mark’s defining syllogism for a “weapon” was as specific as possible. By his criteria, reactor-grade plutonium is not a viable constituent in military stockpiles. In contrast to an ad-hoc group, national military organizations have high standards for an extraordinarily devastating weapon designed to be safely stored during peacetime and reliably delivered under wartime conditions. Mark distinctly advises that national arsenals would not be made out of inferior materials (and no nation is known to have militarily exploited substandard fissile substances).
De Volpi also reported:
Mark wrote a paper, “Reactor-Grade Plutonium’s Explosive Properties,” a definitive description of the topic published in 1990 by the Nuclear Control Institute.[1] At the behest of the Department of Energy, a revised version, “Explosive Properties of Reactor-Grade Plutonium,” was published in a 1993 issue of Science and Global Security (Vol. 4, pp. 111-129), which includes an “Appendix: Probabilities of Different Yields” by Frank von Hippel and Edwin Lyman. [2]
It is instructive to compare the 1990 and 1993 papers which are essentially the same except for a curious, but important difference: Missing from the 1993 version is Mark’s carefully defined term “weapon” as “an object suitable for a stockpile by a military organization.” No explanation for this obvious and crucial omission is supplied with the published revision. My personal interviews and conversations with Mark before 1993 confirmed the intended significance of his 1990 definition.

While reprints of the 1993 paper designate J. Carson Mark as the sole author, the Princeton University website index for Science and Global Security credits the revised paper to “Mark, J.C., von Hippel, F.N., Lyman, E.” The revised version acknowledges that “This article is adapted from an earlier paper” (a reference back to Mark’s original 1990 article).

Reading in between the lines of De Volpi's accounts, there is an unacknowledged and unanswered question about von Hipple's role in the disappearance of the inconvenient sentence from the 1993 version of the Marks' paper. De Volpi adds a long quotation to a 2000 National Academy of Science report
If it is assumed that proliferators in all categories will ultimately be capable of obtaining reasonably pure plutonium metal starting from the dispositioned forms — as we believe to be the case — then the main intrinsic barriers in this category are those associated with deviation of the plutonium’s isotopic composition from “weapons grade.”
De Volpi has noted the unfortunate consequences of von Hippel's reinterpretation of J. Carson Marks' views.
Some individuals have chosen to interpret Mark’s conclusion differently, arguing that because it is possible to make nuclear explosives out of “heavily irradiated reactor plutonium,” nations would actually undertake an expensive and clandestine development program using materials that would lead to uncertain results. Such a suggestion defies engineering logic and historical experience.

Von Hippel has persistently overstated the supposed weaponization qualities of reactor and demilitarized grades of plutonium. Although deficient in direct experience — particularly with nuclear engineering, nuclear weaponization, quality control, and military organizations — he has cavalierly reinterpreted and widely exploited his interpretation of Carson Mark’s published conclusion. Von Hippel has assumed that lack of attractiveness implies that the fissile composition is based on some undefined convenience factor rather than meaningful military standards.

Even with ample analytical experience, and presumably access to some classified information while serving briefly in a government bureaucracy, Von Hippel has persistently underrated the fundamental complexity of nuclear-weapons physics and engineering. He and his acolytes rely on second-hand assurances instead of fundamental specifics about the difficulties in weaponizing degraded plutonium. Von Hippel has employed poorly substantiated “worst-case” methodology to exaggerate the weaponizability of reactor-grade and degraded plutonium. This has lead him to support flawed and overly expensive propositions for less-effective options than offered by the U.S. Department of Energy to demilitarize and salvage the latent energy and economic value of surplus plutonium.
Unfortunately Von Hippel continues to ignore De Volpi's critique of his claims about the weapons use of reactor grade plutonium. In Fast Breeder Reactor Progress, von Hippel states.
The mission of the IPFM is to analyze the technical basis for practical and achievable policy initiatives to secure, consolidate, and reduce stockpiles of highly enriched uranium and plutonium. These fissile materials are the key ingredients in nuclear weapons, and their control is critical to nuclear disarmament, halting the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and ensuring that terrorists do not acquire nuclear weapons.

Both military and civilian stocks of fissile materials have to be addressed. The nuclear weapon states still have enough fissile materials in their weapon stockpiles for tens of thousands of nuclear weapons. On the civilian side, enough plutonium has been separated to make a similarly large number of weapons. Highly enriched uranium is used in civilian reactor fuel in more than one hundred locations. The total amount used for this purpose is sufficient to make about one thousand Hiroshima-type bombs, a design potentially within the capabilities of terrorist groups.
Given the limitations on the explosive potential of Reactor Grade Plutonium devices, the notion that a Hiroshima type device could be built from RGP is highly unlikely, and the notion that terrorists would be capable of building one from RGP traverses well into the realm of the absurd. Von Hippel is trying to frighten the children, with Brothers Grim type stories.

Thus the reader of "Fast Breeder Reactor Programs", should take note that Von Hippel and quite possibly other report writers have agenda's that might in some instances override their obligation to tell the whole truth.

In particular FBRPs is predisposed to recount each of the many LMFBR program failures, while ignoring their successes. The FBRP report fails to assess hard won progress towards program goals, and fails to note that not all of the the program delays reported were due to technical problems. This is fair, but the merit of a research program lies not in the problems that it encountered, but in what was learned and in the success in overcoming those problems. Here FBRP offers no assessment. A problem is simply viewed as a failure, and reactor research is not understood as a learning process.

A further flaw is the failure give proper weight to success. For example, FBRP briefly notes the life history of theExperimental Breeder Reactor-II (EBR-II) , which it describes as
arguably the most successful of the U.S. fast reactors . . .
No mishaps are noted in the report, and indeed, there were none. What was learned about future fast reactor design? American scientists believed that they learned a lot, but FBRP ignores this, for to acknowledge a fully positive outcome is also to acknowledge progress, and to suggest that the project in question might succeed.

Despite its flaws, FBPR has numerous strong points. It does recount histories of experimental fast breeder projects, and offers descriptions of their problems It offers many interesting and useful facts. For example, a table comparing India Fast Breeder Reactors and Pressurized Heavy water reactors. which shows that the nominal levelized of electricity from a single PFBR (500 MWe) was higher than the levelized cost of electricity from indian 700 MWe PHWRs. The case is actually worse than M. V. Ramana presents, because FBPR construction costs are probably going to be above 1 billion dollars, rather than the $648 million he estimates. Ramana's table will show that fuel reprocessing adds significantly to FBPR levelized costs. The lifecycle fuel costs for a single 700 MW PHWR costs less than 1/4th the lifecycle cost of the reprocessed FBPR fuel. The Levelized cost of power from PHWRs is estimated to be, 3.5 cents per kWh, while the FBPR levelized power costs will run, to over 6.3 cents per kWh.

Still even given the higher levelized cost figure for the FBPR, the levelized cost of power from it will be more than competitive with post carbon power costs from nuclear or renewables, in the United States or in Europe. Thus the cost argument does not suggest that India's projected FBR program will handicap the Indian economy. Ramana rargues that for indian Fast Breeders
a capacity factor of 50 percent might well be more plausible. This would result in a levelised cost of 8.35 cents/kilowatt hours (kWh), 139 percent more expensive than PHWRs.
But this assumes no progress on FBR reliability between now and 2050, and even with the higher levelized cost, the Indian economy would still have a competitive advantage in electrical costs. Ramana conclusion might be taken as invalidating the theory offered by FBRP, namely that fast breeder reactors will add to the world supply of weaponizable plutonium:
A more careful calculation that takes into account the plutonium flow constraints shows that the capacity for MFBRs based on plutonium from the DAE’s heavy water reactor fleet will drop from the projected 199 GWe to 78 GWe by 2052.56 If the out-of-pile time were projected to be a more realistic three years, the MFBR capacity in 2052 based on plutonium from PHWRs will drop to 34 GWe.
While these figures may seem large compared to India’s current nuclear capacity of only 4.1 GWe, they should be viewed in relation to the projected requirements, under business-as-usual conditions, of approximately 1300 GWe total generating capacity by mid-century. Further, the only constraint assumed here is fissile material availability. It assumes that there will be no delays due to infrastructure and manufacturing problems, economic disincentives due to the high cost of breeder electricity, or accidents. All of these are realistic constraints and render
Of course, India might shop for RGP on a future international market, or switch to Thorium breeding Molten Salt Reactors (LFTRs) before 2050.

Of the issues raised by FBRP. the most telling is the cost issue. Both the cost of FBR construction, and the cost of fuel reprocessing with fast breeders may block long term implementation in the United States. While FBR technology might be economically justified in India, China and other Asian countries, it might be far to expensive to implement in Europe and North America. What ever FBRP conclusions that might be applied to localized implementations of FBR technology, those conclusions should not be applied to the future costs and value of LFTR technology.


Bill said...

"For example, FBRP briefly notes ... Despite its flaws, FBPR has numerous strong points. ... For example, a table comparing India Fast Breeder Reactors and Pressurized Heavy water reactors. which shows that the nominal levelized of electricity from a single PFBR (500 MWe) was higher than the levelized cost of electricity from indian 700 MWe PHWRs. ..., because FBPR construction costs are probably ..."

A bit of alphabet soup here. I take it that
FBRP, FBPR refer to "Fast Breeder Reactor Programs",
PFBR, FBPR to Fast Breeder Reactor, and
PHWR to Pressurized Heavy Water Reactor.

Barry Brook said...

"the notion that a Hiroshima type device"

Actually, that would be a Nagasaki-type device, as Fat Man (the Pu implosion bomb) was the 2nd one they dropped (though Trinity - the one they tested at Los Alamos, prior to the Japanese bombings, was also a Fat Man).

I made some comments on the report on BNC which I'll reproduce here for the benefit of NG readers:

It’s a real piece of work. I love von Hippel’s conclusion in his first chapter:

"The breeder reactor dream is not dead but it has receded far into the future. In the 1970s, breeder advocates were predicting that the world would have thousands of breeder reactors operating by now. Today, they are predicting commercialization by approximately 2050. In the meantime, the world has to deal with the legacy of the dream; approximately 250 tons of separated weapon-usable plutonium and ongoing — although, in some cases struggling — reprocessing programs in France, India, Japan, Russia and the United Kingdom."

I think the technical term for this is “drawing a long bow and then calling it a rifle”. How is 250t of WGP a legacy of the fast reactor ‘dream’?

I should say that despite some dubious statements and conclusions, the report has many good parts. The Soviet chapter is particularly interesting, and if one wants to know the history of fast reactors in France and India, those chapters are interesting too (this is not a particularly technical document and can be speed-read with effect).

Interestingly, very little is said about EBR-II, other than a bland history on pg 103-104 and no mention of metal-fuel technology nor the 1986 safety demonstrations. This is the key to critiquing this report – it’s not really what they say, it’s what they DON’T say that makes it a problematical (though still interesting) document. It’s a half-bite of the fast reactor cherry.

The biggest flaw is the regular, oblique reference to proliferation concerns, as typified by the concluding paragraph of the last chapter on the US:

Although there are safety issues generic to liquid metal fast reactors, it does not appear that they were the predominant reasons for the demise of the breeder program in the United States. More important were proliferation concerns and a growing conviction that breeder reactors would not be needed or economically competitive with light-water reactors for decades, if ever.

Under GNEP, the DOE expressed renewed interest in fast reactors, initially as burner reactors to fission the actinides in the spent fuel of the light-water reactors. So far, the new designs are mostly paper studies, and the prospect of a strong effort to develop the burner reactors is at best uncertain. The Obama Administration has terminated the GNEP Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement and efforts by DOE to move to near-term commercialization of fast reactors and the closed fuel cycle for transmutation of waste. As this report went to press, it was debating whether to even continue R&D on fast-neutron reactors. The economic and non-proliferation arguments against such reactors remain strong."

I wonder who their target audience is? Whoever it may be, it’s actually a great document to take into a briefing, and then pick apart, as one proceeds to sell the concept of LMFBRs to potential customers. I’m thinking the Russians, Chinese, Indians and South Koreans have already been there, done that, however…

(Charles then replied that the target audience was the Obama admin, but I don't think they buy the proliferation argument and the economic argument would be best solved by getting an international consortium to build one, probably overseas e.g. Russia)

Robert Hargraves said...

I posted a remark on their blog article regarding fissile material stocks, got a misleading reply from Pavel Podvig, posted a counter, but the comment has been in moderation for 24 hours.

LarryD said...

Small reactors in the news at Next Big Future:

"Three big utilities, Tennessee Valley Authority, First Energy Corp. and Oglethorpe Power Corp., on Wednesday signed an agreement with McDermott International Inc.'s Babcock & Wilcox subsidiary, committing to get the new mPower factory mass producable 125-140 MWe reactor approved for commercial use in the U.S.

... "Small reactors are expected to cost about $5,000 per kilowatt of capacity, or $750 million or so for one of Babcock & Wilcox's units. Large reactors cost $5 billion to $10 billion for reactors that would range from 1,100 to 1,700 megawatts of generating capacity.

shaun said...

I'm sort of wondering why you are obsessing here about who said what on reactor grade plutonium. Its important but leave it aside for the moment. What is curious is that you don't address the plutonium production in du blankets in breeders - which the last time a looked is categorized weapons-grade to supergrade (ie - up 97% pu-239) Now fortunately the breeder has been such a failure there's not so much breeder plut. around. I guess you'll find a way to argue that this plut. would not increase proliferation risks cause there will be pyroprocessing or multinational fuel centers. You may be convincing some but your deluding yourselves.

Charles Barton said...

Shaun, while it would be theoretically possible to produce weapons grade plutonium in a fast breeder, it would be extremely expensive to do so. It would be far cheaper to build a graphite reactor, and run quick fuel cycles. But probably U-235 separation would be cheeper still, and a U-235 bomb would also be cheeper and technically easier to assemble, as well as more reliable. I don't know why proliferation advocates seem to think that expensive and technically more difficult routs to nuclear proliferation would be preferred to less expensive and technologically less challenging routes.

LarryD said...

"I don't know why proliferation advocates seem to think that expensive and technically more difficult routes to nuclear proliferation would be preferred to less expensive and technologically less challenging routes."

The cynic in me says it's because they don't like nuclear energy, period.

In Other News, GE Hitachi is now trying to promote spent nuclear fuel reprocessing.

DV8 2XL said...

What these clowns are doing is seeking to cut off the motive power of industry. They are quite simply attempting to destroy the Industrial Revolution by starving it to death.

Such a reversal would begin a new Dark Age for mankind—a Dark Age in which everyone would be compelled to accept a standard of living well below that of the Third World—a Dark Age that would open with the deaths of billions of human beings who would have become the "surplus" population that could no longer be supported in a world without mass production.

But what makes me sick, is that I am also sure that they see themselves as being members of the privileged class that would surely emerge, the high priests, that would extol us all to doing without, while safe behind their temple walls, indulging in luxury.

LarryD said...

WSJ - General Atomics Proposes a Plant That Runs on Nuclear Waste

"Nuclear and defense supplier General Atomics announced Sunday it will launch a 12-year program to develop a new kind of small, commercial nuclear reactor in the U.S. that could run on spent fuel from big reactors.

In starting its campaign to build the helium-cooled reactor, General Atomics is joining a growing list of companies willing to place a long-shot bet on reactors so small they could be built in factories and hauled on trucks or trains.

... The General Atomics reactor, which is dubbed EM2 for Energy Multiplier Module, would be about one-quarter the size of a conventional reactor and have unusual features, including the ability to burn used fuel, which still contains more than 90% of its original energy. Such reuse would reduce the volume and toxicity of the waste that remained. General Atomics calculates there is so much U.S. nuclear waste that it could fuel 3,000 of the proposed reactors, far more than it anticipates building.

The decision to proceed with its 12-year program indicates that General Atomics believes the time is right to both make a nuclear push and to try to gain approval for an unconventional design proposal despite the likely difficulty of getting it certified by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The EM2 would operate at temperatures as high as 850 degrees Centigrade, which is about twice as hot as a conventional water-cooled reactor. The very high temperatures would make the reactor especially well suited to industrial uses that go beyond electricity production, such as extracting oil from tar sands, desalinating water and refining petroleum to make fuel and chemicals.

LarryD said...

H/T to Next Big Future

Why You Can’t Build a Bomb From Spent Fuel.


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