Saturday, May 29, 2010

Blue Ribbon Commission Hearings: Makhijani and Knowledge Pollution

The so called Blue Ribbon Commission on the American Nuclear Future held two meetings on May 25 and 26. The Tuesday meeting featured Lobbyists of various strips, including a number of well known nuclear naysayers. But even the naysayers may have something to contribute. Arjun Makhijani, for example offered an account of the issues posed by used nuclear fuel in a once through fuel cycle. Makhijani, a well known nuclear naysayer, reviewed some, but by no means all of the facts, and the his selectivity was telling. Among the options which Makhijani failed to discuss, were recycling so called nuclear waste in CANDU type reactors, and using fissionable waste as LFTR start up charges. Makhijani clearly demonstrates that there is a large amount of fissionable material is still found in used nuclear fuel. Residual U-235 is about 0.68% of the total used fuel material resources, but that is already a concentration high enough to power Pressurized Heavy Water Reactors. In addition the used fuel contains about 0.99% plutonium isotopes, a majority of which are fissionable and can also be used as PHWR fuel.

In addition, while points to the fast breeder nuclear disposal option, Makhijani fails to note that in addition to LMFBR option and the the potential use of so called nuclear waste as PHWR fuel, the fissionable materials in used nuclear fuel can be used as start up charges for various types of Molten Salt Reactors.

Makhijani notes that the the existing american nuclear fleet can be expected to produce 100,000 tons of used nuclear fuel during its operational life. This would be the equivalent of 700 tons of U-235, and a 1000 tons of plutonium isotopes. Used as start up charges for LFTR one to one converters, this would potentially produce enough sustainable energy to power the entire United States economy at current high energy levels. No wonder Makhijani chose to ignore the MSR/LFTR fissionable byproducts disposal option, despite well documented proposals for Oak Ridge, and Moscow.

In addition to his neglect of promising options for the disposal of the potentially most dangerous constituents if used nuclear Makhijani vastly exaggerates the problems posed by nuclear fuel reprocessing, and the dangers posed by its consequences. For example, claims that fuel reprocessing would add one cent per kWh to electrical costs. But in fact the picture is more complex than that. In LFTR one to one converters, the cost of the start up charge is a one time expense. Once conversion begins, LFTR fuel related costs would decrease dramatically. One thousand tons of reactor grade plutonium, could potentially start LFTRs capable of producing 1000 GWs of electricity, enough to supply about 80% of American energy. Since there would be very little subsequent fuel costs given the LFTR, even Makhijani estimated 8 trillion dollar cost for processing the plutonium out of used nuclear fuel be offer quite a bargain.

A further problem with Makhijani's account is related to his claim that ~12,000 to 14,000 nuclear bombs could be constructed from spent nuclear fuel. This assumes an error that is widely voiced by nuclear critics that the plutonium found in used nuclear fuel is easily weaponizable. First, while it has been demonstrated that fuel grade plutonium can produce nuclear explosions, this is not the same thing as saying that reactor grade plutonium is weaponizable. It has been argued that heat and radiation from a RGP device would rapidly render it inoperative. A strong case can be made that it is not. in addition, even a device made from RGP would require testing.

Thus given the great expense and difficulty of plutonium extraction from used reactor fuel, which Makhijan himself outlines, the reliability problems associated with RGP weapons, and the questionable yield, even if such a weapon worked at all, would be nuclear proliferators are likely to prefer lower cost, more predictable and reliable nuclear options. South Afriuica demonstrated in the 1970's and 80's that a low cost uranium enrichment program was possible, and could lead to the development of of reliable and predictable nuclear weapons. The successful South African proliferation model, as well as those followed by Pakistan and North Korea, suggest that focus on plutonium in used nuclear fuel as a proliferation too is highly misguided. Rather than focusing on the unlikely proliferation path that plutonium isotopes in used nuclear fuel provide, proliferation prevention efforts should focus on successful proliferation paths that are already in place. if we are incapable of stopping proliferation by low cost, tested methods, it is foolish to focuse on higher cost, and far more problematic proliferation methods. The entire proliferation issue as outlined by Makhijan is nothing but a canard habitually used by the anti-nuclear lobby.

in addition to his choice to ignore several promising technologies that could potentially disposed of most or even all fissionable materials and other actinides in used nuclear fuels, Makhijan chose to downplay the potential of fast breeder reactors. He does so by ignoring fast breeder programs in Russia and india, that are very close to yielding commercial prototypes. In particular the Indians plan to bring commercial fast breeders into serial production during this decade, and similar goals are possible for Russia. The Indians plan to bring as many as 320 fast breeders online by 2050, and use their surplus fuel to power Generation III+ PHWRs. Although Makhijan is undoubtedly aware of Indian plans,he focuses instead on,
Japan’s commercialization date for sodium-cooled breeders is now2050.
And instead of focusing on promising Molten Salt Reactor technology, Makhijan suggests
If we are going to develop long-ter nuclear technologies, why not focus on nuclear fusion, which has almost none of the disadvantages of fission?
In fact one of the most promising schemes for fusion development, the so called fusion-fission hybrid, uses molten salt technology that similar to that which would be also used in the LFTR, and indeed at a significant level of investment the LFTR can be ready for serial manufacture in factories within 10 years, so it would not be even a particularly long term project.

Arjun Makhijani, despite his pose as a voice of science and reason, is thus another agent of knowledge pollution, who seeks to spread doubt and confusion about important issues.

The Blue Ribbon Commission has its work cut out for it, if it is to get past the Knowledge polluters.


horos22 said...


the real question is - how do you get a chance for someone to speak before the blue ribbon committee?

Unless the majority of the members are totally biased (which admittedly is a possibility), the advantages of using MSRs to do recycling whilst making power are going to come through; as I've said in other forums, the unique military applications of MSRs (for desalinization, vehicular engines, creation of fuel) should probably be stressed in addition because of Mr. Scowcroft's place as co-chair on the committee..

So - is anybody from the LFTR community scheduled to give a presentation there?

Charles Barton said...

Heros22, someone from the LFTR community is on the commission!

Robert Hargraves said...

Yes, Per Peterson is on the Commission, but he must remain technology agnostic and unbiased, so he can not promote LFTR. Who is the right member of our community to offer to testify? Sorensen? LeBlanc? Moir?

Charles Barton said...

Robert, I have contacted Kirk and David, but you and Ralph would also make excellent witnesses as well.

LarryD said...

Anyone want to bet that fusion will disappear from Makhijan's suggestions if either Polywell or Dense Plasma Focus pass the milestone that confirms their practicality?


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