Sunday, February 24, 2008

WASH-1222 with Comments: Part 1

Kirk Sorensen, in response to my posting on Milton Shaw, suggested that I review WASH-1222, a document by which Shaw hopped to bury the MSR. I have begun to do that. The purpose of this review will be to assess the extent to which the decision to shut down the development of the MSR in the late 1960's and early 1970's was an irrational political decision. I am going to post my results on section at a time. - CB



The Division of Reactor Development and Technology, USAEC, was assigned the responsibility of assessing the status of the technology of the Molten Salt Breeder Reactor (MSBR) as part of the Federal Council of Science and Technology Research and Development Goals Study. In conducting this review, the attractive features and problem areas associated with the concept have been examined; but more importantly, the assessment has been directed to provide a view of the technology and engineering development efforts and the associated government and industrial commitments which would be required to develop the MSBR into a safe, reliable and economic power source for central station application.

The MSBR concept, currently under study at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), is based on use of a circulating fluid fuel reactor coupled with on-line continuous fuel processing. As presently envisioned, it would operate as a thermal spectrum reactor system utilizing a thorium-uranium fuel cycle. Thus, the concept would offer the potential for broadened utilization of the nation's natural resources through operation of a breeder system employing another fertile material (thorium instead of uranium).

The long-term objective of any new reactor concept and the incentive for the government to support its development are to help provide a self-sustaining, competitive industrial capability for producing economical power in a reliable and safe manner. A basic part of achievement of this objective is to gain public acceptance of a new form of power production. Success in such an endeavor is required to permit the utilities and others to consider the concept as a viable option for generating electrical power in the future and to consider making the heavy, long-term commitments of resources in funds, facilities and personnel needed to provide the transition from the early experimental facilities and demonstration plants to full-scale commercial reactor power plant systems.

Consistent with the policy established for all power reactor development programs, the MSBR would require the successful accomplishment of three basic research and development phases:
  • An initial research and development phase in which the basic technical aspects of the MSBR concept are confirmed, involving exploratory development, laboratory experiment, and conceptual engineering. 

  • A second phase in which the engineering and manufacturing capabilities are developed. This includes the conduct of in-depth engineering and proof testing of first-of-a-kind components, equipment and systems. These would then be incorporated into experimental installations and supporting test facilities to assure adequate understanding of design and performance characteristics, as well as to gain overall experience associated with major operational, economic and environmental parameters. As these research and development efforts progress, the technological uncertainties would need to be resolved and decision points reached that would permit development to proceed with necessary confidence. When the technology is sufficiently developed and confidence in the system was attained, the next stage would be the construction of large demonstration plants. 

  • A third phase in which the utilities make large-scale commitments to electric generating plants by developing the capability to manage the design, construction, test and operation of these power plants in a safe, reliable, economic, and environmentally acceptable manner.
Significant experience with the Light Water Reactor (LWR), the High-Temperature Gas-cooled Reactor (HTGR) and the Liquid Metal-cooled Fast Breeder Reactor (LMFBR) has been gained over the past two decades pertaining to the efforts that are required to develop and advance nuclear reactors to the point of public and commercial acceptance. This experience has clearly demonstrated that the phases of development and demonstration should be similar regardless of the energy concept being explored; that the logical progression through each of the phases is essential; and that completing the work through the three phases is an extremely difficult, time consuming and costly undertaking, requiring the highest level of technical management, professional competence and organizational skills. This has again been demonstrated by the recent experience in the expanding LWR design, construction and licensing activities which emphasize clearly the need for even stronger technology and engineering efforts than were initially provided, although these were satisfactory in many cases for the first experiments and demonstration plants. The LMFBR program, which is relatively well advanced in its development, tracks closely this LWR experience and has further reinforced this need as it applies to the technology, development and engineering application areas.

[This paragraph reflects Milton Shaw's views, but Shaw clearly over estimated the relative maturity of the reactor technologies referred to by the paragraph. Developmental problems with light water reactor reactor technology were to cost reactor owners tens of billions of dollars during the next two decades. Reactor scientists had told Shaw about the problems, but Shaw discounted the warnings. Again Shaw's belief that the LMFBR had reached an advanced stage of development was far from reality in 1972, and remains questionable in 2008. Shaw's demonstrably mistaken beliefs thus appear to lie at the heart of the WASH-1222 assessment of the potential of MSR technology. - CB]

It should also be kept in mind that the large backlog of commitments and the shortage of qualified engineering and technical management personnel and proof-test facilities in the government, in industry and in the utilities make it even more necessary that all the reactor systems be thoroughly designed and tested before additional significant commitment to and construction of, commercial power plants are initiated.

[In fact the his was not the case when Shaw joined the AEC in 1964. Shaw immediately proceeded to destroy the the research and development units that were needed to carry such a project out. Hence "the shortage of qualified engineering and technical management personnel and proof-test facilities" was a problem which Shaw had created. Thus as we shall see, not only does WaSH-1222 commit egregious errors in logic, as well as misstatement of facts, it covers up the fact that Shaw himself had destroyed the resources that were required to complete the development of the MSR. Statements like this must be counted as duplicitous. - CB]

With regard to the MSBR, preliminary reactor designs were evaluated in WASH-1097 (“The Use of Thorium in Nuclear Power Reactors”) based upon the information supplied by ORNL. Two reactor design concepts were considered—a two-fluid reactor in which the fissile and fertile salts were separated by graphite and a single fluid concept in which the fissile and fertile salts were completely mixed. This evaluation identified problem areas requiring resolution through conduct of an intensive research and development program.

[The two fluid MSR was an auto breeder. That meant it produced at least enough U233 to keep working until it ran out of thorium to breed. As long as a reactor produces as much fuel as it consumes, it is a successful breeder. Thus WASH-1222 should have considered the advantages of 2 fluid MSRs. - CB]

Since the publication of WASH-1097, all efforts related to the two-fluid system have been discontinued because of mechanical design problems and the development of processes which would, if developed into engineering systems, permit the on-line reprocessing of fuel from single fluid reactors. At present, the MSBR concept is essentially in the initial research and development phase, with emphasis on the development of basic MSBR technology. The technology program is centered at ORNL where essentially all research and development on molten salt reactors has been performed to date. The program is currently funded at a level of $5 million per year. Expenditures to date on molten salt reactor technology both for military and civilian power applications have amounted to approximately $150 million of which approximately $70 million has been in support of central station power plants. These efforts date back to the 1940's.

[ORNL chose a one fluid approach, because Shaw' demanded a higher breeding ratio than the two fluid approach could achieve in order to bump up theoretical breeding ratios. This choice was made to meet Shaw's demands. These sums of $150 million and $70 million seem quite paltry by the standards of 2008. Even if dollars from the 1950’s and 1960’s are translated into 2008 terms, the amount spent seems trivial in comparison to say the cost of military weapons systems. In retrospective we can say that ORNL provided a whole lot of information about a promising technology very inexpensively. - CB]

In considering the MSBR for central station power plant application, it is noted that this concept has several unique and desirable features; at the same time, it is characterized by both complex technological and practical engineering problems which are specific to fluid-fueled reactors and for which solutions have not been developed. Thus, this concept introduced major concerns that are different in kind and magnitude from those commonly associated with solid fuel breeder reactors. The development of satisfactory experimental units and further consideration of this concept for use as a commercial power plant will require resolution of these as well as other problems which are common to all reactor concepts.

[This paragraph shifts from obvious facts, to unwarrented conclusions. The facts involve “complex technological,” and “practical engineering problems” for which “solutions have not been developed.” Now had solutions been developed already, then there would be no purpose for the development program which has been proposed. The next statement does not follow from the stated issues. “Thus, this concept introduced major concerns that are different in kind and magnitude from those commonly associated with solid fuel breeder reactors.” Why are concerns about the developmental problems of the MSR different in kind and magnitude?” Given what we know today, the AEC had not only underestimated the problems associated with the development of the LMFBR, they had seriously underestimated the developmental problems associated with the LWR, a technology which Shaw and the AEC in 1972 incorrectly believed to be mature. - CB]

As part of the AEC's Systems Analysis Task Force (AEC report WASH-1098) and the "Cost-Benefit Analysis of the U.S. Breeder Reactor Program" (AEC reports WASH-1126 and WASH-1184), studies were conducted on the cost and benefit of developing another breeder system, "parallel" to the LMFBR. The consistent conclusion reached in these studies is that sufficient information is available to indicate that the projected benefits from the LMFBR program can support a parallel breeder program. However, these results are highly sensitive to the assumptions on plant capital costs with the recognition, even among concepts in which ample experience exists, that capital costs and especially small estimated differences in costs are highly speculative for plants to be built 15 or 20 years from now. Therefore, it is questionable whether analyses based upon such costs should constitute a major basis for making decisions relative to the desirability of a parallel breeder effort. Experience in reactor development programs in this country and abroad has demonstrated that different organizations, in evaluating the projected costs of introducing a reactor development program and carrying it forward to the point of large-scale commercial utilization, would arrive at different estimates of the methods, scope of development and engineering efforts, and the costs and time required to bring that program to a stage of successful large scale application and public acceptance.

[The statement of risk considerations in the proceeding paragraph is sound. Future cost estimates for projects in developmental stages represent risky conjectures. This would seem to be an argument for rather than against parallel programs. Given the cost uncertainties attendant to taking a single line approach to a technological development, it is always wise to have an alternative solution at hand, in case cost start to run away. Developmental costs for the LMFRB “Clinch River Breeder Reactor” project did run away in the 1970’s and early 1980’s. Since all of the contentions about cost risk apply equally to both the LMFBR and the MSR, the argument in the last paragraph is incoherent. That is it supports contradictory conclusions. We are being set up by this paragraph for an attempt to block further development of the MSR on the basis of cost. WASH-1222 has already made the judgment that development of the LMFBR would proceed. It appears to have assessed that the AEC’s 1970’s LMFB project could fail, as it did. The possibility of project failure is a risk. Any comparative cost/benefits study, should assess relative risks of failure. - CB]

Based upon the AEC's experience with other complex reactor development programs, it is estimated that a total government investment up to about 2 billion dollars in undiscounted direct costs could be required to bring the molten salt breeder or any parallel breeder to fruition as a viable, commercial power reactor. A magnitude of funding up to this level could be needed to establish the necessary technology and engineering bases, obtain the required industrial capability, and advance through a series of test facilities, reactor experiments, and demonstration plants to a commercial MSBR, safe and suitable to serve as a major energy option for central station power generation in the utility environment.

[Looking at this statement today with the benefit of hindsight, I would have to say that a development cost of $2 billion 1972 dollars was trivial. The Apollo Moon program cost $25.4 Billion 1969 dollars, arguably the nation would have been far better off if 10% of that money had been diverted to MSR development. In 1984 the GAO reviewed the Clinch River Breeder Reactor project, which was the AEC’s LMFBR project. In 1971 the AEC had estimated that the project would cost $400 million, of which $257 was to have come from private sources. By 1972, when WASH-1222 was written the cost estimate had risen to $700 million. By 1981 after $1 billion had been spent, the estimated cost of completion was 3 to 3.2 Billion more, with an estimated further project cost of $1 billion for a plutonium processing facility. By 1984 project cost had risen to $8 billion. And this was only a proof of concept reactor. Other proof LMFBR proof of concept reactors have had a very mixed history. Even today, a good case can be made that LMFBT technology has not been proven either safe, reliable or cost effective. - CB]
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
Some Concluding Remarks about WASH-1222


Anonymous said...

Great comments, Charles! I appreciate you taking the time to review WASH-1222. I wish more people would read WASH-1097 and then WASH-1222 and see if they agree that there was a serious "white-WASH" going on in the early 1970s at AEC against fluoride reactor technology.

The dirty secret of all of Shaw's posturing for the liquid-metal fast breeder was that that reactor was capable of generating enormous amounts of excess weapons-grade plutonium. If you look at what AEC was involved in in the 1940s thru the 1960s, it wasn't civilian power, it was fissile material for nuclear weapons! The LMFBR was the machine that could ostensibly satisfy both needs.

The Molten-Salt Breeder Reactor, with its inherently safe thermal-spectrum operation on thorium, couldn't make the weapons-grade material AEC coveted because U-233 is always contaminated with U-232, making it worthless for weapons.

Shaw needed an excuse to get rid of pesky ORNL and their thorium breeder, and white-WASH-1222 was it.

By the way, I've posted the text of WASH-1222 on a thread on the thorium forum here:

1972 AEC Evaluation of the MSBR (WASH-1222)

You can also read WASH-1097 online as well:

The Use of Thorium in Nuclear Power Reactors (WASH-1097)

Rod Adams said...

Kirk and Charles:

I appreciate the effort that both of you have been expending to share your knowledge and research. It is fascinating to continue to learn more about the politics and maneuvering behind the scenes, especially when viewing the story through my personal lens as an experienced, but not contented bureaucrat.

As a career Naval officer with seven years (and counting) in assignments serving flag officers and political appointees, I recognize the characteristics of people like Milton Shaw and I recognize how fatally flawed programs develop momentum. It is sometimes a sad story that continues to be repeated.

Now, back to reading the WASH reports.

DW said...

There is an interesting question here too over what the purposes of a breeding ratio are for. I think too much attention is being paid to the idea of creating some sort of vast surplus of U233. I do NOT believe that should be the goal. The goal of a real breeder is to start with ONE charge of U233 (or other fissile fuel charge) and then enough of a breeding ratio to continue the reaction with thorium only for the life of the reactor. Is it REALLY necessary that these reactors be U233 factories? Isn't there enough plutonium and U235 to start up the MSRs?

Society needs a reactor that can breed enough to keep going. That's it, really. Any surpluses are fine, but they are not critical.


Charles Barton said...

David you have hit on a major conceptual issue. The question is do you need to breed surplus fissionable materials in breeder reactors, or is a 1 to 1 breeding ratio sufficient. The LMFBR offers superior breeding ratios, but probably far more headaches. Decision makers are more impressed by the breeding ratios, than concerned by the problems. High breeding ratios feed non-breeding reactors. Demanding high breeding ratios weds us to a plutonium economy, with its attendant problems. Accepting the lower breeding ratios made possible by a Thorium-uranium economy, leaves us with far fewer problems. The thorium breeding MSR is actually an auto-breeder. It breeds enough U233, to sustain the chain reaction and the breeding process indefinitely, but not much more. You are correct that auto-breeding is enough to maintain the nuclear economy for thousands of years. New thorium breeder can be started by using "spent" nuclear fuels, currently deposited in "nuclear waste" stockpiles. This would necessitate the use of two fluid MSR's, but two fluid MSR's can breed well enough to serve as auto-breeders.

Gordon McDowell said...

Charles are you headed to TEAC5? I'm using your argument that "Shaw' demanded a higher breeding ratio than the two fluid approach could achieve" in p03 of Th doc. If I can get you on camera talking about Shaw it would help a heck of a lot.

Charles Barton said...

Gordon, I am not up to traveling, but I can talk by telephone. Charles


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