30 Jul 2012: Analysis

Are Fast-Breeder Reactors
A Nuclear Power Panacea?

Proponents of this nuclear technology argue that it can eliminate large stockpiles of nuclear waste and generate huge amounts of low-carbon electricity. But as the battle over a major fast-breeder reactor in the UK intensifies, skeptics warn that fast-breeders are neither safe nor cost-effective.

by fred pearce

Plutonium is the nuclear nightmare. A by-product of conventional power-station reactors, it is the key ingredient in nuclear weapons. And even when not made into bombs, it is a million-year radioactive waste legacy that is already costing the world billions of dollars a year to contain.

And yet, some scientists say, we have the technology to burn plutonium in a new generation of “fast” reactors. That could dispose of the waste problem, reducing the threat of radiation and nuclear proliferation, and at the same time generate vast amounts of low-carbon energy. It sounds too good to be true. So are the techno-optimists right — or should the conventional environmental revulsion at all things nuclear still hold?

Say No to Nuclear Fission

Arjun Makhijani, president of the Maryland-based Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, offers a strong rebuttal to Fred Pearce’s analysis. Pursuing any kind of nuclear power, including fast-breeder reactors, is a dangerous and expensive diversion from a green energy future, Makhijani argues.
Fast-breeder technology is almost as old as nuclear power. But after almost two decades in the wilderness, it could be poised to take off. The U.S. corporation GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy (GEH) is promoting a reactor design called the PRISM (for Power Reactor Innovative Small Modular) that its chief consulting engineer and fast-breeder guru, Eric Loewen, says is a safe and secure way to power the world using yesterday’s nuclear waste.

The company wants to try out the idea for the first time on the northwest coast of England, at the notorious nuclear dumping ground at Sellafield, which holds the world’s largest stock of civilian plutonium. At close to 120 tons, it stores more plutonium from reactors than the U.S. and Russia combined.

While most of the world’s civilian plutonium waste is still trapped inside highly radioactive spent fuel, much of that British plutonium is in the form of plutonium dioxide powder. It has been extracted from spent fuel with the intention of using it to power an earlier generation of fast reactors that were never built. This makes it much more vulnerable to theft and use in nuclear weapons than plutonium still held inside spent fuel, as most of the U.S. stockpile is.

The Royal Society, Britain’s equivalent of the National Academy of Sciences, reported last year that the plutonium powder, which is stored in drums,
Britain’s huge plutonium stockpile makes it a vast energy resource.
“poses a serious security risk” and “undermines the UK’s credibility in non-proliferation debates.”

Spent fuel, while less of an immediate proliferation risk, remains a major radiological hazard for thousands of years. The plutonium — the most ubiquitous and troublesome radioactive material inside spent fuel from nuclear reactors — has a half-life of 24,100 years. A typical 1,000-megawatt reactor produces 27 tons of spent fuel a year.

None of it yet has a home. If not used as a fuel, it will need to be kept isolated for thousands of years to protect humans and wildlife. Burial deep underground seems the obvious solution, but nobody has yet built a geological repository. Public opposition is high — as successive U.S. governments have discovered whenever the burial ground at Yucca Mountain in Nevada is discussed — and the cost of construction will be huge. So the idea of building fast reactors to eat up this waste is attractive — especially in Britain, but also elsewhere.

Theoretically at least, fast reactors can keep recycling their own fuel until all the plutonium is gone, generating electricity all the while. Britain’s huge plutonium stockpile makes it a vast energy resource. David MacKay, chief scientist at the Department of Energy and Climate Change, recently said British plutonium contains enough energy to run the country’s electricity grid for 500 years.

Click to enlarge
GE Hitachi PRISM reactor

GE-Hitachi Nuclear
The GE Hitachi PRISM (Power Reactor Innovative Small Modular) reactor.
Fast reactors can be run in different ways, either to destroy plutonium, to maximise energy production, or to produce new plutonium. Under the PRISM proposal now being considered at Sellafield, plutonium destruction would be the priority. “We could deal with the plutonium stockpile in Britain in five years,” says Loewen. But equally, he says, it could generate energy, too. The proposed plant has a theoretical generating capacity of 600 megawatts.

Fast reactors could do the same for the U.S. Under the presidency of George W. Bush, the U.S. launched a Global Nuclear Energy Partnership aimed at developing technologies to consume plutonium in spent fuel. But President Obama drastically cut the partnership’s funding, while also halting work on the planned Yucca Mountain geological repository. “We are left with a million-year problem,” says Loewen. “Right now there isn’t a policy framework in the U.S. for solving this issue.”

He thinks Britain’s unique problem with its stockpile of purified plutonium dioxide could break the logjam. “The UK is our best opportunity,” he told me. “We need someone with the technical confidence to do this.”

The PRISM fast reactor is attracting friends among environmentalists formerly opposed to nuclear power. They include leading thinkers such as Stewart Brand and British columnist George Monbiot. And, despite the cold shoulder from the Obama administration, some U.S. government officials seem quietly keen to help the British experiment get under way. They have approved the export of the PRISM technology to Britain and the release of secret technical information from the old research program. And the U.S. Export-Import Bank is reportedly ready to provide financing.

Britain has not made up its mind yet, however. Having decided to try and re-use its stockpile of plutonium dioxide, its Nuclear Decommissioning Authority has embarked on a study to determine which re-use option to support. There is no firm date, but the decision, which will require government approval, should be reached within two years. Apart from a fast-breeder reactor, the main alternative is to blend the plutonium with other fuel to create a mixed-oxide fuel (mox) that will burn in conventional nuclear power plants.

Britain has a history of embarrassing failures with mox, including the closure last year of a $2 billion blending plant that spent 10 years producing a scant amount of fuel. And critics say that, even if it works properly, mox fuel is an expensive way of generating not much energy, while leaving most of the plutonium intact, albeit in a less dangerous form.

Only fast reactors can consume the plutonium. Many think that will ultimately be the UK choice. If so, the PRISM plant would take five years to license, five years to build, and could destroy probably the world’s most dangerous stockpile of plutonium by the end of the 2020s. GEH has not publicly put a cost on building the plant, but it says it will foot the bill, with
Proponents of fast reactors see them as the nuclear application of one of the totems of environmentalism: recycling.
the British government only paying by results, as the plutonium is destroyed.

The idea of fast breeders as the ultimate goal of nuclear power engineering goes back to the 1950s, when experts predicted that fast-breeders would generate all Britain’s electricity by the 1970s. But the Clinton administration eventually shut down the U.S.’s research program in 1994. Britain followed soon after, shutting its Dounreay fast-breeder reactor on the north coast of Scotland in 1995. Other countries have continued with fast-breeder research programs, including France, China, Japan, India, South Korea, and Russia, which has been running a plant at Sverdlovsk for 32 years.

But now climate change, with its urgency to reduce fossil fuel use, and growing plutonium stockpiles have changed perspectives once again. The researchers’ blueprints are being dusted off. The PRISM design is based on the Experimental Breeder Reactor No 2, which was switched on at the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois in 1965 and ran for three decades.

Here is how conventional and fast reactors differ. Conventional nuclear reactors bombard atoms of uranium fuel with neutrons. Under this bombardment, the atoms split, creating more neutrons and energy. The neutrons head off to split more atoms, creating a chain reaction. Meanwhile, the energy heats a coolant passing through the reactor, such as water, which then generates electricity in conventional turbines.

The problem is that in this process only around 1 percent of the potential energy in the uranium fuel is turned into electricity. The rest remains locked up in the fuel, much of it in the form of plutonium, the chief by-product of the once-through cycle. The idea of fast reactors is to grab more of this energy from the spent fuel of the conventional reactor. And it can do this by repeatedly recycling the fuel through the reactor.

The second difference is that in a conventional reactor, the speed of the neutrons has to be slowed down to ensure the chain reactions occur. In a typical pressurized-water reactor, the water itself acts as this moderator. But in a fast reactor, as the name suggests, the best results for generating energy from the plutonium fuel are achieved by bombarding the neutrons much faster. This is done by substituting the water moderator with a liquid metal such as sodium.

Proponents of fast reactors see them as the nuclear application of one of the totems of environmentalism: recycling. But many technologists, and most environmentalists, are more skeptical.

The skeptics include Adrian Simper, the strategy director of the UK’s Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, which will be among those organizations deciding whether to back the PRISM plan. Simper warned last November in
Critics argue that plutonium being prepared for recycling ‘would be dangerously vulnerable to theft or misuse.’
an internal memorandum that fast reactors were “not credible” as a solution to Britain’s plutonium problem because they had “still to be demonstrated commercially” and could not be deployed within 25 years.

The technical challenges include the fact that it would require converting the plutonium powder into a metal alloy, with uranium and zirconium. This would be a large-scale industrial activity on its own that would create “a likely large amount of plutonium-contaminated salt waste,” Simper said.

Simper is also concerned that the plutonium metal, once prepared for the reactor, would be even more vulnerable to theft for making bombs than the powdered oxide. This view is shared by the Union of Concerned Scientists in the U.S., which argues that plutonium liberated from spent fuel in preparation for recycling “would be dangerously vulnerable to theft or misuse.”

GEH says Simper is mistaken and that the technology is largely proven. That view seems to be shared by MacKay, who oversees the activities of the decommissioning authority.

The argument about proliferation risk boils down to timescales. In the long term, burning up the plutonium obviously eliminates the risk. But in the short term, there would probably be greater security risks. Another criticism is the more general one that the nuclear industry has a track record of delivering late and wildly over budget — and often not delivering at all.

John Sauven, director of Greenpeace UK, and Paul Dorfman, British nuclear policy analyst at the University of Warwick, England, argued recently that this made all nuclear options a poor alternative to renewables in delivering low-carbon energy. “Even if these latest plans could be made to work, PRISM reactors do nothing to solve the main problems with nuclear: the industry’s repeated failure to build reactors on time and to budget,” they wrote in a letter to the Guardian newspaper. “We are being asked to wait while an industry that has a track record for very costly failures researches yet another much-hyped but still theoretical new technology.”

But this approach has two problems. First, climate change. Besides hydroelectricity, which has its own serious environmental problems, nuclear power is the only source of truly large-scale concentrated low-carbon energy currently available. However good renewables turn out to be, can we really afford to give up on nukes?


Shunning Nuclear Power
Will Lead to a Warmer World

Shunning Nuclear Energy Will Lead to a Warmer World
Physicist Spencer Weart argues that if we allow our overblown and often irrational fears of nuclear energy to block the building of a significant number of new nuclear plants, we will be choosing a far more perilous option: the intensified burning of planet-warming fossil fuels.
Second, we are where we are with nuclear power. The plutonium stockpiles have to be dealt with. The only viable alternative to re-use is burial, which carries its own risks, and continued storage, with vast expense and unknowable security hazards to present and countless future generations.

For me, whatever my qualms about the nuclear industry, the case for nuclear power as a component of a drive toward a low-carbon, climate-friendly economy is compelling. [A few months ago, I signed a letter with Monbiot and others to British Prime Minister David Cameron, arguing that environmentalists were dressing up their doctrinaire technophobic opposition to all things nuclear behind scaremongering and often threadbare arguments about cost. I stand by that view.]

Those who continue to oppose nuclear power have to explain how they would deal with those dangerous stockpiles of plutonium, whether in spent fuel or drums of plutonium dioxide. They have half-lives measured in tens of thousands of years. Ignoring them is not an option.

POSTED ON 30 Jul 2012 IN Biodiversity Business & Innovation Business & Innovation Energy Forests Science & Technology Water Central & South America Europe North America 


There's a version of a thorium-fueled Molten Salt Reactor that can 'burn' plutonium and its got the potential to be much safer, because of the stable molten-salt coolant, than the highly reactive sodium used in fast breeders such as PRISM.

And now we have the Duchess of Cambridge emulating the Queen, as Will hands a gift-wrapped package of thorium over to Kate.

Google: "william and kate" + thorium

Posted by Colin Megson on 30 Jul 2012

The Indians have a fast breeder reactor going into service this year, first of 5 to 2020 at a cost of $1.5B/Gw.

All 7 Candu/s started in the last two decades finished on time and on budget built in less than 4 years at $2B/Gw less than 3 cents a kwh. No cost overruns there.

The Soviet Alfa subs all ran on fast reactors.

Research before posting!

Posted by seth on 30 Jul 2012

Excellent article on Nuclear Fast Breeder Reactors.

A breeder reactor is a nuclear reactor capable of generating more fissile material than it consumes because its neutron economy is high enough to breed fissile from fertile material like uranium-238 or thorium-232. Breeders were at first considered superior because of their superior fuel economy compared to light water reactors. Interest in breeders reduced after the 1960s as more uranium reserves were found, and new methods of uranium enrichment reduced fuel costs.

Breeder reactors could in principle extract almost all of the energy contained in uranium or thorium, decreasing fuel requirements by nearly two orders of magnitude compared to traditional once-through light water reactors, which extract less than 1\% of the energy. This could greatly dampen concern about fuel supply or energy used in mining. In fact, with seawater uranium extraction, there would be enough fuel for breeder reactors to satisfy our energy needs for as long as the current relationship between the sun and Earth persists, about 5 billion years (thus making nuclear energy as sustainable in fuel availability terms as solar or wind renewable energy).
Nuclear waste became a greater concern by the 1990s. Breeding fuel cycles became interesting again because they can reduce actinide wastes, particularly plutonium and minor actinides.[4] After the spent nuclear fuel is removed from a light water reactor, after 1000 to 100,000 years, these transuranics would make most of the radioactivity. Eliminating them eliminates much of the long-term radioactivity of spent nuclear fuel.[5]

In principle, breeder fuel cycles can recycle and consume all actinides, leaving only fission products. So, after several hundred years, the waste's radioactivity drops to the low level of the long-lived fission products. If the fuel reprocessing process used for the fuel cycle leaves actinides in its final waste stream, this advantage is reduced.

There are two main types of breeding cycles:
•      The fast breeder reactor's fast neutrons can fission even actinides with even neutron numbers. Even numbered actinides usually lack the low-speed "thermal neutron" resonances of fissile fuels used in LWRs.
•      The thorium fuel cycle simply produces lower levels of heavy actinides. The fuel starts with few isotopic impurities (i.e. there's nothing like U238 in the reactor), and the reactor gets two chances to fission the fuel: First as U233, and as it absorbs neutrons, again as U235.

Two types of traditional breeder reactor have been proposed:
•      fast breeder reactor or FBR — The superior neutron economy of a fast neutron reactor makes it possible to build a reactor that, after its initial fuel charge of plutonium, requires only natural (or even depleted) uranium feedstock as input to its fuel cycle. This fuel cycle has been termed the plutonium economy.
•      thermal breeder reactor — The excellent neutron capture characteristics of fissile uranium-233 make it possible to build a moderated reactor that, after its initial fuel charge of enriched uranium, plutonium or MOX, requires only thorium as input to its fuel cycle. Thorium-232 produces uranium-233 after neutron capture and beta decay.
In addition to this, there is some interest in so-called "reduced moderation reactors", which are derived from conventional reactors and use conventional fuels and coolants, but are designed to be reasonably efficient as breeders. Such designs typically achieve breeding ratios of 0.7 to 1.01 or even higher

The advantages of breeder reactors is that the neutrons from the uranium + plutonium expended in the reaction are used to generate more fissile material (plutonium). In other words you are getting two thing out of one.

The disadvantages of breeder reactors is 1:It has to be cooled with liquid sodium,2:It is even more complicated and more expensive than normal reactors,and 3:It has a potential for the misuse of the plutonium by terrorists.

Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India
E-mail: anumakonda.jagadeesh@gmail.com

Posted by Dr.A.Jagadeesh on 30 Jul 2012

You should remind the reader that a fast reactor loaded with 50 tons of fuel, will still produce nearly 50 tons of highly radioactive waste, still containing a large part of the original plutonium, but not "reprocessable". The difference (regarding waste) with a classic reactor is that the waste contains less plutonium and more fissions products. But we still have the same problem. This would be for a fast burner reactor and not fast breeder reactor.

The article is about "fast breeder". Those reactor are call "breeder" because they are designed to produce, in the long term, more plutonium than they burn.

Posted by Marie on 31 Jul 2012

Marie: Fission products decay much faster than Plutonium. That is the difference. Very long half-lives mean little radiation and short half-lives mean high radiation that decays quickly. The problem with plutonium, americium ... is that they decay quickly enough to be dangerous but not quickly enough to disappear in decades.

Posted by SteveK9 on 31 Jul 2012

It is incorrect to say "nuclear power is the only source of truly large-scale concentrated low-carbon energy currently available." Solar is a far more abundant source of energy and can be harnessed using concentrating solar power plants with thermal storage to reliably deliver power even after the sun has gone down. With losses of just 3 percent of power per 1000km this power can be delivered to centres of demand. The incredible solar resources in the world's deserts more than compensate for the costs of the power lines.

Better still this is a technology that is both already deployed and scalable. On the one hand, pro-nuke greens argue that the public perception of risks associated with nuclear power are exaggerated and that climate change is a far greater risk. On the other hand, they promote nuclear technologies that cannot be deployed on a large scale anytime soon and so will arrive too late to make a difference to emissions targets. We need solutions that are ready now.

Posted by Dan Storey on 01 Aug 2012

Look up the book "We Almost Lost Detroit." It details the near catastrophe surrounding the Enrico Fermi Fast Breeder Reactor a few decades ago. It is a sobering account of how quickly, and I cannot emphasize "quickly" enough, a situation with one of these reactors can get out of hand.

The better solution for cleaning up nuclear waste stockpiles may well be thorium-based reactors.

Posted by Marty Kassowitz on 02 Aug 2012

Marie, the waste from a PRISM, if used the way it is intended (with full recycling) would contain no
plutonium or other long-lived actinides. It would be all fission products that would achieve radiotoxicity levels below that of natural uranium ore within a few hundred years, and far below those levels as even that small amount of radioactivity would rapidly decline still further.

Whenever this topic arises, the thorium advocates come out with their contention that molten salt
thorium reactors will be safer, cheaper, etc. That could conceivably be true, but it will take years of R&D to find out. The PRISM is ready to build today, as GE's offer to build it — on their own dime — has demonstrated. So while there is no reason not to go ahead with thorium reactor research, if we're going to address global warming ASAP it would seem foolish to decline GE's remarkable offer.

As for plutonium and its proliferation risk, the plutonium in Britain's inventory is reactor-grade and would be lousy for making weapons. The isotopic mix is no good for it, plus by now it's contaminated with americium, and much of it is contaminated with other adulterants as well. This would present a problem if it were to be destined for MOX reformulation, but it's no problem for the PRISM. This should be a no-brainer for the UK to give the PRISM the go-ahead. Hopefully they'll do so sooner rather than later.

Posted by Tom Blees on 02 Aug 2012

Fast reactors offer no solution to the waste problem.


According to International Panel on Fissile Materials, reducing our nuclear waste inventory to a manageable size and reasonable time frame for disposal (300 years) with fast reactor cycles is too costly. Reprocessing and fast reactors also don't free us of the need of a repository either. Proponents of fast reactors need to get off web sites, and back into the reality based community where alternatives to nuclear power are being discussed that would be far less costly, risky, and would involve no waste storage or long term decommissioning or proliferation concerns. We've spent too much time wasting resources and human talent of post-war optimism, atomic era faith based reasoning and false promises of an energy source "too cheap to meter."


"According to a comprehensive study by the U.S. National Research Council published in 1996, however, even with repeated recycle in fast-neutron reactors, it “would take about two centuries...to reduce the inventory of the [transuranics] to about 1 percent of the inventory of the reference LWR once-through fuel cycle”. The study also concluded that this would be extraordinarily costly" (p. 9 - 10).


Countries that reprocess produce wastes that require about the same size geological repository
as would direct disposal of the unreprocessed spent fuel. For example, ANDRA, France’s radioactive waste management agency, has estimated the repository tunnels for the radioactive waste generated by its reprocessing and plutonium recycle activities will underlie about 15 square kilometers of surface area– about the same area that would have been required had France not reprocessed at all. Thus, reprocessing does not reduce the political challenges to repository siting" (10).

Posted by EL on 02 Aug 2012

EL, your first statement is poppycock, relying on a conflation of French-style aqueous reprocessing and the non-aqueous pyroprocessing that would be done with PRISM/IFR. This intentionally misleading conflation is a hallmark of the official-sounding but nevertheless unofficial International Panel on Fissile Materials, the brainchild of Frank von Hippel. He was probably the most influential person in the decision to kill the IFR project under Clinton, when he was deputy secretary of the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy.

The assertion that IFRs will be too costly is baseless. The system operates under atmospheric pressure and is simpler by far than current reactor systems, and able to be built in modular units in factories. Over a century of experience with mass production, especially when building simpler systems than otherwise would be used, is strong evidence that those who warn of IFRs being too costly are talking through their hat.

Since so-called "nuclear waste" isn't waste at all but fuel for IFRs, and since they can also burn depleted uranium (and old weapons-grade material), there's about a thousand years worth of IFR fuel already out of the ground even if we produce all the energy that humanity needs just from IFRs. So even if the complaint that it would take centuries to get rid of all the waste, why is that a bad thing? It's just fuel. Actually, the actinides in spent LWR fuel would be used up first, along with old weapons material, and then depleted uranium would be used last, for many centuries.

You write: "Proponents of fast reactors need to get off web sites, and back into the reality based community where alternatives to nuclear power are being discussed that would be far less costly, risky, and would involve no waste storage or long term decommissioning or proliferation concerns." Such as?? Please save your patronizing advice for topics about which you are knowledgeable.

Posted by Tom Blees on 03 Aug 2012

Tom Blees indicates that pyroprocessing may one day save the day for IFR and set us back on a quest for a futuristic fuel source that has minimal to zero waste, sustainable natural abundance ("thousands of years worth"), and perhaps (I don't know, he seems to be suggesting as much) may be "too cheap to meter" (to look back at the false hopes and naive optimism of nuclear promises of days long ago). What hasn't been discussed are the significant technological and practical hurdles standing in the way of commercializing these technologies, and bringing them to scale. Volatility, corrosion, scalability, efficiency, fuel types (applicability to low burn-up spent fuels), waste by-products, and more have not been discussed, and remain at the bench or pilot scales of development.


From these objective facts, I take the statement in the lead article to be informative and accurate in this regard: "Simper warned last November in an internal memorandum that fast reactors were “not credible” as a solution to Britain’s plutonium problem because they had “still to be demonstrated commercially” and could not be deployed within 25 years." There is a big difference between scientifically feasible, and commercially viable as a scalable, cost effective, low-risk, efficient, easy to insure, easy to site, regulate, and practical alternative for our many challenges in today's competitive energy and technology markets. If Bless can tell us where this technology stands today, and how it will likely be used tomorrow on such things as low burn-up fuels from PWRs and even depleted uranium (an impractical statement at best), I (and perhaps other readers on the site) would find this a useful contribution.
Posted by EL on 03 Aug 2012

EL, the easiest way to get informed about this would be to read either my book (for the lay
person) or, for those who don't mind something a bit more technical, the excellent recent book by Charles Till and Yoon Chang entitled Plentiful Energy. That will answer all your questions and concerns that you raise here.

As for Adrian Simper's statement back in November, he was simply echoing the assumption
in the consultation that the NDA had issued, which had totally bought AREVA's line that building fast reactors was a project decades away. Shortly after that statement, GE offered to build PRISMs immediately, with their own money. That pretty much answers your question as to where this stands in terms of commercial viability. After all, a well-established company like GE doesn't just toss offers like that around lightly. They know it's ready for prime time. As for scalability, these are relatively small modules (300-350 MWe). France's Phenix was about 2/3 that size (albeit with oxide fuel, not the far superior metal fuel of the PRISM) and ran just fine for over 30 years. Russia's BN600 has been running over 30 years too, and is twice the output of a PRISM.

You deride my statements (re. depleted uranium as a fuel) and raise concerns about issues like corrosion, etc. that demonstrate that you simply don't know the basics about IFRs. That's not to slam you—it's not like that information is common knowledge—but it's pretty hard to take your objections and purported specific concerns seriously when you seem to be pretending to know. This isn't the place to address the many questions you bring up, most of which would entail many paragraphs of explanation. So I would simply suggest that you visit the website of SCGI and download a free copy of my book, which I'll post there within a day. Just go to www.thesciencecouncil.com and click on the link on the right that says: Prescription for the Planet.

Posted by Tom Blees on 03 Aug 2012

Tom Blees, my question (which you still haven't answered) has nothing to do with proposed advanced reactor concepts, but with your "faith based" claim that the nuclear fuel cycle can be
completely, safely, and efficiently closed with pyrochemical recycle processes, and that all of
the well-documented and pending issues with this technology (volatility, corrosion, scalability,
efficiency, proliferation resistance, commercial viability with other fuel types, waste by-products, etc.) can be resolved as a future hope for the industry. These technologies and proposed new fuel cycles are not as well developed or tested as you have suggested. Active research in the U.S. was discontinued in the '90s, and research elsewhere remains as the bench or laboratory scale (with many challenges and longstanding engineering issues remaining to be explored, pilot tested, and demonstrated as efficient, safe, practical, competitive, and commercially viable).

Layman reports on some of the early stages of this research: http://www.nci.org/el-atw52401.htm

"The claim that pyroprocessing can also reduce the quantity of nuclear waste is false …Pyroprocessing has also run into a lot of technical problems. A three-year demonstration of the
process failed to complete its goals of processing 125 spent fuel elements — so that DOE was able to argue that the demonstration was successful only by changing the success criteria it had originally established! The process is dirty and several serious incidents, including contamination of 11 personnel, occurred. The process is still apparently experiencing problems — The Bush administration budget provided funding only to support operation at a rate of 0.5 tons of fuel per year — one-tenth of the rate at which it is supposed to be operating. At this rate, it will take more than 50 years to process an amount of EBR-II spent fuel which was supposed to take only 5 years. According to ANL, it could only achieve the original rate by running it 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and making unspecified "process improvements" which will cost more money."

The DOE roadmap for Gen IV compares well with Layman's assessment, and features some of the same concerns regarding viability testing, early development stage, and technological gaps in scale, efficiency, waste by-products, etc.


"For the pyroprocess, viability issues include lack of experience with larger-scale plutonium and
minor actinide recoveries, minimal experience with drawdown equipment for actinide removal from electrorefiner salts before processing, and minimal experience with ion exchange systems
for reducing ceramic waste volume" (p. 40).

Further challenges and the need for viability testing are described on p. 55, including need for
international coordination of research and "substantial investment in specialized facilities"
(p. 53) beyond the laboratory scale. Based on this evidence, it seems clear to me, and perhaps to anybody else familiar with this research, that pyroprocessing is not yet "a credible" fuel cycle alternative for IFR, and is even less so for PWR spent fuels or depleted uranium (your own "faith" in the technology notwithstanding).

Posted by EL on 07 Aug 2012

By the way, it's Ed Lyman, not Layman. But could that be a purposeful mistake, coming from Ed Lyman himself (EL)? I'll tell you what: you can put your "faith" in Ed and Arjun Makhijani (apparently one of his pals) if you like. They'll tell you just what you want to hear about nuclear power, this or any other kind. For those who'd like the straight scoop on pyroprocessing, I will again direct the interested reader to the book Plentiful Energy by Till and Chang, who know more about pyroprocessing and fast reactors than anybody on the planet. I'm done here.

Posted by Tom Blees on 08 Aug 2012

Not wishing to create confusion, I'm not Ed Lyman (and I do know a person with the last name Layman, which is the source of the error).

Till and Chang have described the IFR electrorefining research at Argonne National Lab
sufficiently well. The initial demonstration plant did not conduct any testing to scale, and did not treat or recycle all 25 metric tons of fuel as initially proposed. Most of the research that has followed has focused on additional feasibility testing for a pyroprocessing plant to scale, waste operations, treatment fuels, corrosion and product tests, collection systems, anode/cathode pairs, etc., and remain at the bench or pilot stages of development. There remains an unproven and unmet goal of treating 1,000 kg/day with relatively small-size equipment (which is just one criteria that has to be met for recommended potential for economic and commercial feasibility, among many others).


I don't see where anybody has suggested that any of these facts are in dispute (Till and Chang included).

Posted by EL on 09 Aug 2012

The UK’s Nuclear Decommissioning Authority would be well advised not to opt for the PRISM as a means of dispositioning the UK’s 100-tonne stockpile of separated plutonium. Other alternatives are less costly and less risky.

One thing we have learned from the history of breeder reactor development programs is that liquid metal fast reactors cost more to build, maintain and fuel compared to conventional light water reactors. Because sodium is opaque and reacts with air and water, maintenance of sodium-cooled reactors has generally proven to be more difficult, risky and costly compared to maintenance water-cooled reactors. Moreover, while a few fast reactor prototypes have operated successfully, a larger number have been dismal failures. Fast breeder reactor development programs failed in the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy and Japan. Liquid metal fast reactors for naval propulsions were abandoned by the nuclear navies of both the United States and the Soviet Union. While the Russia, India and China are pushing forward with fast reactor development programs, it should be noted that Russia, now 50 years into its development program, has yet to close its fast reactor fuel cycle, uses enriched uranium to fuel its BN-350 and BN-600 reactors, and despite decades of state support, has failed to implement a commercial-scale plutonium recycle capability.

After several decades of development, the Indian breeder program can hardly be called successful, and the Chinese have barely left the starting line. The flagship breeders of the American, German, French, Japanese programs were all failures. The U.S. Clinch River Demonstration Plant and the German SNR-300 were cancelled during construction. The French Super-Phenix and the Japanese Monju operated, but with dismal capacity factors. Cost-competitive commercialization of a “closed” plutonium fuel cycle remains a distant dream.

The UK intends to replace its aging fleet of Advanced Gas-Cooled Reactors (AGRs). If the UK seeks to burn its separated plutonium as reactor fuel, a less risky and less costly alternative would be qualify the plutonium-seed thorium-blanket fuel under development by Lightbridge (formerly Thorium Power, Inc.) and burn the fuel in replacement light water reactors of conventional design. Like the PRISM conceptual design, the Lightbridge plutonium seed is a plutonium metal alloy. Perhaps the plutonium seed rods could be fabricated at AWE Aldermaston, avoiding a repeat of the failed UK MOX program at Sellafield.

Posted by Thomas B. Cochran on 14 Aug 2012

The idea that nuclear fuel is limited is true in the absolute sense, but not relevant for human use. The same is true for fossil fuels. There is plenty of both but there is a confusion about the difference between proven reserves and probable reserves, as well as a confusion about costs, which is related.

There are only small proven reserves of nuclear fuel because there is a market glut. Stockpiles amassed in past decades in anticipation of a boom that didn't happen depress the price and eliminate incentive for exploration. Those who are aware of this issue and how it affects discovery prefer to speak of probable reserves and guess a ten fold increase, though that is only a guess, it may be a hundred or thousand fold increase. More importantly the world is awash in nuclear fuel in low concentrations. The seas brim with U235 but the cost to extract it from seawater is above current market price.Newer designs for reactors require less fuel because they burn it more completely, exhausting all fissionable material. And we have always had the technology to produce U235 from the much more abundant U238 using breeder reactors.The notion of lmtiied nuclear fuel isn't valid, anymore than the notion of lmtiied fossil fuels is valid. Both arguments are bait and switch obfuscation that conceal relevant facts.Plutonium in the hands of crazies is not a nuclear power issue, it's a crazies issue. It's the same for biotechnology and nanotechnology. There is absolutely no way that any nation or collection of nations can control either the amount or distribution of Pu in the world.

China alone proves that point but there are several other players, and if there weren't that would merely be incentive for others to enter the market. It's worrisome, but it is a fantasy to think that we can make any difference by inhibiting ourselves. This is a head-in-the-sand approach.It isn't that there are any sure answers to crazies that we could implement if we only had the will. It is that there are no answers, no way to eliminate risks. Like gunpowder, there is simply no way to stifle the spread of this technology so we must focus on managing it, engage with the issue rather than seeking to hide from it.

Posted by Aurora on 18 Aug 2012

Nuclear power died a deserved death because it could not compete in the marketplace without huge government subsidies. The only reason we have ANY running plants today is because of the artificially low insurance coverage mandated by the Price- Andersen act.

The historical problems with reprocessing showed that nuclear technology is a radioactive tar-baby. If you want to play with the tar-baby, tar is going to get all over everything.

Let the nuke proponents show that nuclear makes financial sense, and that they have moved even a few centimeters towards solving the problems of reprocessing.

Nuclear power can only be inflicted on people by a fascist state that blends industry and government like Hitler and Mussolini did. It must do this with lies and false promises, as we know all too well.

The nuclear industry is very good at keeping Fukushima off the airwaves. Their influence even keeps it off public radio and television, which they pour money into.

Posted by Karl LeMay on 07 Oct 2012

What do opponents of nuclear power propose to do with the stockpiles of nuclear waste which
exist and cannot be just wished away? It seems to me that the H/GE proposal could be a win,win for everyone!

H/GE will make money from selling the electricity, disposing of the waste at an agreed rate and proving the feasibility of their IFR model together with it's essential nuclear fuel reprocessing facility. The British government will have made a start on the road to disposing of this pesky waste and having added to it's much needed electricity supply infrastructure. I think it's a really sweet deal!

If it works? If it doesn't , the worst that can happen is a lot of H/GE shareholders will lose money. This happens all the time in business, all over the world. Clear the decks and let's get on with it, I say!

Posted by Curly Judge on 28 Feb 2013

Comments have been closed on this feature.
Fred Pearce is a freelance author and journalist based in the UK. He serves as environmental consultant for New Scientist magazine and is the author of numerous books, including When The Rivers Run Dry and With Speed and Violence. In previous articles for Yale Environment 360, Pearce has written about the environmental consequences of humankind’s addiction to chemical fertilizers and the possible role that airborne microbes play in our world, from spreading disease to possibly changing the climate.



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