In light of the tragic effects of the Japanese tsunami earlier this year that, among other devastating consequences, damaged the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant that caused a melt down and released dangerous levels of radioactive material in the air and sea water there, should nuclear power be taken off of the table as a source of clean energy to meet future needs and reduce the impact that fossil fuels are having on climate change conditions around the globe?
“In the decade from 1984 to 1994, scientists at Argonne National Laboratory developed an advanced technology that promised safe nuclear power unlimited by fuel supplies, with a waste product sharply reduced both in radioactive lifetime and amount. The program, called the IFR, was cancelled suddenly in 1994, before the technology could be perfected in every detail. Its story is not widely known, nor are its implications widely appreciated. It is a story well worth telling, and this series of articles does precisely that.” – excerpt from Plentiful Energy and the IFR story by Charles Till, former Associate Director, Argonne National Laboratory
“That’s it”, I exclaimed to myself as I came across information in Dr. James Hansen‘s book “Storms of My Gandchildren”. The excitement was about the little known nuclear technology known as “fast reactors” or IFR’s (Integral Fast Reactor) that could solve one of the serious issues we need to contend with in reducing our carbon footprint. Our reliance on fossil fuels has left us precariously positioned to find a reliable substitute as a source of “base power” so we can transition to cleaner and greener fuels with minimal disruption to the economy where fossil fuels supply about 90% of our energy. Of that 90%, over 50% is from the dirtiest and most toxic fossil fuel – COAL. “Base power” is a source of reliable energy, always there, unlike solar and wind that can be disrupted when the weather isn’t accommodating.
Dr. Hansen, in his book, had been building up to this awareness of the IFR to present a viable alternative to the coal issue. A conservative figure for deaths related to burning coal is around 200,000 lives each year. Since coal is the biggest fossil fuel source in use and climatologist like Dr. Hansen feel we need to drastically reduce man-made CO2’s in the next 2-3 decades, diminishing our use of coal in rapid succession would achieve this goal in great measure.
But to remove this large amount of base power from our economy would prove difficult and costly in terms of jobs and energy costs. A viable, CLEAN alternative needed to be discovered. In the case of the IFR, re-discovered. The optimism on this technology is expressed in Tom Brees book on the subject entitled “Prescription for the Planet”. In it Brees explains “how a trio of little-known yet profoundly revolutionary technologies, coupled with their judicious use in an atmosphere of global cooperation, can be the springboard that carries humanity to an era beyond scarcity.”
So what’s so great about the fast reactors that removes the earlier problems of nuclear power as an energy source? Everything! As an anti-nuclear advocate my biggest concern was what to do with the radioactive waste. Like I was, you may be surprised to learn that at best only 1% of the uranium used in nuclear fission (the method used to supply power at nuclear plants) is used up when employing light or heavy-water reactors. The rest is waste product. Particulate matter in nuclear waste known as transuranic actinides has a life span of 10,000 years. That’s a lot of waste that needs “babysitting”; stored safely to prevent leaks and theft from “dirty bomb” terrorist. With IFRs 99% of the uranium can be used up. This not only increases fuel efficiency a whopping 100% but removes potential future hazards that come from finding safe nuclear storage sites.
Here’s the disappointing part of this whole story. Because of anti-nuclear sentiment that’s resulted over the years from the problems at Three Mile Island in 1979 and later at Chernobyl in 1986, with a lot of help from the film classic “China Syndrome”, the Clinton administration, in 1994, decided to kill the IFR research program that began under President Nixon. The scientists involved in the program at Argonne were instructed by the DOE not to publicize this. The opportunity to have this technology available now was disrupted for what seems to be primarily political reasons along with the feeling of many of my anti-nuclear cohorts who still today feel that nuclear energy poses a serious threat to humans.
If many of these anti-nuclear supporters were to concede that IFRs will eliminate the radioactive threat from waste storage, a lot may still be resistant to this technology because nuclear power is still a national security threat. Many also feel that increased commercial nuclear fuel reprocessing, that accompanies the current third generation of nuclear power plants, would “increase the global risks of both nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism”. Some, like the Union of Concerned Scientist, who I support in the fight against global warming, feel this reprocessing is “dangerous, dirty and expensive,” I part company with them on this issue.
The concern about nuclear terrorism does not go unaddressed by Dr. Hansen. In his book the renowned scientist points out that the “possibility of weapons-grade nuclear material falling into the hands of terrorists and rogue nations” will not simply go away because we eliminate all nuclear weapons and technology. Sadly, as he points out, “the genie is out of the bottle”. The information is out there for anyone to create a dirty bomb or develop a nuclear program. The IFR technology diminishes the terrorist threat because it introduces advanced reactors that “minimizes proliferation risks”, especially if the U.S. takes the lead in this development.* How is this possible?
Third generation nuclear power plants currently in the approval stage have made great safety advances that were of concern with older, second generation plants now in existence since the Three Mile incident. IFRs are the 4th generation of nuclear power plants. The coup-de-gras as I see it with this new technology is its ability to not only use sea water uranium, which we have in abundance, but more importantly can eliminate our nuclear weapons stock piles – that ready source of radio-active material for terrorist to exploit with economically strapped nations like Russia and rogue nations like North Korea. The brilliance of IFR technology is that it really doesn’t even have to use new sources of uranium and the deadly plutonium extract from it.
As Hansen’s book points out, “fast reactors can be run such that they produce more nuclear fuel than they consume. They are not creating energy out of nothing; they are just converting ‘fertile’ elements – elements that are fissionable when hit by a slow (thermal) neutron. It is necessary to supply a fast reactor with ‘fertile’ material, but there is enough of that available in the nuclear waste piles that we are babysitting to last many centuries. (emphasis mine) Fertile material that can be burned in fast reactors is contained in by-products of past weapons development programs as well as in the waste piles from light-water reactors.” *
Lastly, there is the concern about high costs to build nuclear plants, not only to investors but to the public taxpayer as well. “[T]he free market long ago abandoned nuclear power.The right-wing think tank Heritage Foundation remarked, “Expansive loan guarantee programs … are wrought with problems. At a minimum, they create taxpayer liabilities, give recipients preferential treatment, and distort capital markets.” However, as I see it, these huge cost overruns and risks stem from the negative environment that surrounds nuclear plant construction, primarily from friends of mine in the prevailing anti-nuclear climate.
It seems apparent though that once the concerns of the anti-nuclear crowd are eliminated with the obvious benefits of the IFR technology, that animosity will fade away and the costs from delays that such people created will also disappear. To achieve this though we need to have an honest and open debate about these differences before we can proceed with 4th generation reactor development to insure that once we start this program it will not be sabotaged or blind-sided by a remnant rogue element within the anti-nuclear population. Developing IFRs, in unison with other clean energy sources of wind, solar, thermal and bio-fuels is a win-win prospect for all parties concerned about global warming
We must also convince the climate deniers that it is in their best interest to forgo their notions of conspiracy on the part of the climate science and their public support base. This skepticism has been fostered by the fossil fuel industries as a defensive measure to slow any efforts that will reduce the consumption of oil and coal and thus reduce company profits; some, like Exxon/Mobil, that increased to $9.25 billion alone by the end of the 4th quarter last year, a 55% increase from the same time in the previous year.
It can effectively be shown that any job loss in the oil and coal industry can be supplanted with equal amounts of jobs in the clean and green technologies field along with energy cost remaining constant and ultimately lower. I believe we can be on our way to a self-sufficient energy policy that enhances our national security as it removes the threat of global warming being unduly impacted through our use of fossil fuels.
* Hansen, “Storms of My Grandchildren” pp201-202
* – Ibid p. 199
This is a re-print from an earlier post of mine on the AC Yahoo site under the title “A Light in the Darkness”