The Integral Fast Reactor (IFR) project: Congress Q&A

For more info, see:
The Integral Fast Reactor (IFR) project: A critical technology for controlling climate change

Steve Kirsch answers a set of excellent questions posed by a congressional chief of staff:

Who is pushing it and what do they stand to gain?
Jim Hansen is. He wants to save the planet from destruction. He's been telling people for a long time we must phase out coal. If we don't, then nothing else we do will matter. But even Germany, with their huge national commitment to fighting global warming, is still building new coal plants! The IFR would be a superior alternative to coal. We don't have that today. If we did have a viable alternative, Germany wouldn't be building coal plants. We need a viable alternative to coal ASAP and we should be placing strategic bets on technology that can get us there. Right now, the IFR looks like the single best strategic bet we can make to displace coal.

California Lt. Governor John Garamendi held an IFR briefing in Sacramento on October 20, 2008. The attendee list included Tom Isaacs (LLNL), Ehud Greenspan (UC Berkeley), Doug Carroll (GE PRISM project director, ret), Eric Loewen (GE PRISM project director), John Garamendi (Lt. Gov. of California), Jasmina Vujic (chair of UC Berkeley Dept. of Nuclear Engineering), Bill Hannum (IFR researcher at Argonne, ret), Tom Blees, Lora Lee Martin (CA Council on Science & Technology, Craig Smith (LLNL). Participating by phone were Per Peterson (who previously held Jasmina's position at Berkeley) and Burton Richter (a particle physicist who ran SLAC for years and won the Nobel prize for physics in '76).

Garamendi had assembled people who knew about nuclear power as well as IFR experts because he wanted to get an unbiased assessment of the technology. Garamendi came away from that meeting convinced that this was a critical technology to re-start and he is now taking actions to accomplish that. He would like to have the first IFR plant built in California.

Noted British environmental writer Mark Lynas is pushing it because he wants to save the planet even though his stance is not "popular" with environmentalists. Indeed, Lynas was surprised himself about what he learned when he looked at the facts objectively. See Mark Lynas: the green heretic persecuted for his nuclear conversion.

Mary Nichols, the highly respected chair of California's Air Resources Board, has been saying for many years that breeder reactors, such as the IFR, are a critical part of the energy mix and should be pursued.

Charles Till, former co-director of Argonne National Lab and the inventor of the IFR, now long retired, still believes it in, but he's not pushing it. I think the most telling argument I can give you is this email that I received from retired cattle rancher Joe deGanahl. The bold part is my emphasis:



I am a retired cattle rancher now living in Mesquite, NV and have just read your article on the Integral Fast Reactor.  While on the ranch in NW Colorado, I served for a number of years as an officer and director of two rural electric cooperatives.  We built several coal fired generation stations during the 1970s and 80s to serve our growing loads.


As fate would have it, I now play poker in Mesquite with none other than Dr. Charles Till, the former Director of Argonne Labs.  He is a delightful man and over the last several years we have had a number of conversations about his work on the IFR.  Being a cowboy, I am about as qualified to comment on nuclear physics as I am to be an astronaut.  However, I am convinced Dr. Till believes to this day that his group was working on a project of tremendous potential to the country and the world.


As a token Red Neck, I have corresponded with a number of my environmentally inclined friends about IFR.  At first they just tune me out.  After I get their attention, they can’t believe we threw this opportunity away.  I wish you well in your efforts to get the country to take another look at IFR.


While I am sure you and I could find much room for disagreement on many topics of our time, I found your candor and objectivity very refreshing.

There is not a long list of people who support it because hardly anyone knows about it. Hansen and Lynas just found out about it and Gore just found out about it from Hansen.

Fundamentally, you either believe in people like Charles Till and Jim Hansen, or you don't.

Hansen told Congress early on about global warming. Congress didn't listen. Who was right?

Here's a partial list of IFR supporters:

Dr. James Hansen, Columbia University, director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies
Dr. Klaus Lackner, theoretical particle physicist at Columbia University
Dr. Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute and advisor to the UN, also at Columbia
Dr. Bruno Comby, president of Environmentalists for Nuclear Power, Paris
Dr. Jean-Bernard Minster, U.C. San Diego professor of geophysics
Dr. Charles Archambeau, a geophysicist who did a study of Yucca Mountain for the DOE in 1989-90.
Dr. Doug Carroll, nuclear engineer at GE, retired
Dr. Richard Mattas, retired former manager of the US fusion research efforts, Argonne National Laboratory
Dr. Jasmina Vujic, chair of U.C. Berkeley Dept of Nuclear Engineering
Dr. Jeff Crowell, nuclear physicist at Sandia National Laboratory
Dr. Charles Till, former director of Argonne National Lab, retired
Dr. Yoon Chang, Till's successor at Argonne, recently retired
George Stanford, retired, scientist who worked on the IFR
California Lt. Governor John Garamendi

Who is opposed to it?
I don't know of a single person who opposes it who approached this from an open mind and was briefed by the scientists directly and is qualified in the nuclear physics enough to make a value judgment. At worst, they go away saying, "yeah, this could work" and agree that there isn't a clearly superior technology available as an alternative.

The most knowledgeable strongest opponent to the IFR that I'm aware of is Thomas Cochran, Senior Scientist, at NRDC. His concerns are cost and reliability. He says many countries have tried to build IFRs but have been unsuccessful. He thinks in-plant pyroprocessing is not economical.

In a way, his arguments remind me of the same debate with fuel cells. There are the electric car advocates who say fuel cell vehicles will never be economical and they cite all sort of statistics as to why fuel cells cars will never be economical. Yet there are lots of car companies who are investing billions of dollars in building fuel cell vehicles and limited commercial availability of fuel cell cars will be next year.

The opposition comes from people who haven't been briefed first-hand on the technology and/or who make associations with old nuclear technology or who really don't understand the technology and the alternatives.

And it will likely come from people who are simply misinformed and look for arguments to support their position. John Kerry's arguments against the IFR in 1994 fall into this camp. Blees's book examines each of Kerry's argument in Chapter 12. Charles Till's excellent article on the IFR was succinct about Kerry's arguments:

His arguments against the merits of the IFR were not well informed and many were clearly wrong. But what his presentation lacked in accuracy it made up in emotion.

I'm not aware of a single prominent scientist who was qualified to understand the IFR technology who opposed it back in 1994. So you had politicians providing their own version of the science because the science didn't support what the politicians wanted to do.

Environmentalists who first hear about the IFR are opposed. When noted British environmental writer Mark Lynas was won over by the IFR and wrote about his enlightenment in the press, he was roundly chastised by people who knew virtually nothing of the IFR.

There are groups such as Physicians for Social Responsibility who are against all things nuclear. But all of their nuclear opposition is based around existing nuclear technology, not the 4th generation nuclear technology which is radically different in terms of safety, proliferation, and waste issues.

People who are unbiased who have been briefed on it, such as Nobel prize winner Burton Richter, think that it is a reasonable bet. They can't say for sure that it is THE best bet because nobody really knows enough because there is still work to do. The only way we'll know for sure how good it is is to build one.

One person I know who is opposed to this is David Lochbaum, the nuclear safety engineer at UCS. Here's what Lochbaum wrote and Blees's response: ifrUCSresponse.pdf

You can read Senator Kerry's remarks and Blees rebuttal in Chapter 12 of Blees's book (page 327ff).

Some people (who haven't been briefed) are concerned about the proliferation aspects. But there are a variety of reasons this is far less of an issue for these plants than regular nuclear plants. And if we simply restrict the IFR to our trusted allies until we feel more confident about our ability to protect the plants and assess the risks, then there isn't any more of a proliferation risk than we have now with existing nuclear plants and in fact, it is much less.

Also, there are non-technical solutions to the proliferation problem, e.g., we only build the plants if we jointly operate them under international supervision or, at a minimum, we only build them if we have at least one trusted observer in each plant.

The genie is already out of the bottle with respect to breeder technology as other countries have similar breeder reactor designs. The US can choose to lead and set the standards, or we can let our fate be in the hands of decisions by other countries.

But most people have never had a briefing by the IFR scientists and the technology is complicated and obscure enough that there are probably a handful of scientists who could give you a scientific assessment. For example, Burton Richter (Nobel prize in physics) had a briefing and he thought it looked reasonable. But without further research, it's impossible for him to say it is the best. So it is fundamentally a question of making a bet on your top government scientists that they were right since nobody can say for sure till it is done and we build one.

If you are looking for a definitive answer, you will not find one. You will only find people's opinions. You can find respected nuclear scientists like Till who still believe this is the best alternative. And you can find detractors (who are not as knowledgeable about the IFR) who can argue that other approaches are move proven.

There is only one way to settle the debate and that is to build one.

Why did this project get killed in the first place?
Because there wasn't any awareness of global warming at the time and people were scared of nuclear energy due to the meltdown problem and proliferation risk. And energy was cheap and plentiful. Times have changed. Clinton said it was "unneeded" in his state of the union speech.

George Stanford, a scientist who worked on the IFR, did a great job dissecting former Secretary of Energy Hazel R. O'Leary's stated reasons in March  15, 1994 for pulling the plug on this spectacularly successful project. O'Leary was formerly a was previously a lobbyist for fossil fuel companies. His rebuttal is here:  O'Leary Problems.pdf

Ironically, Senator Kerry, who is now a leader in the fight against global warming, led the fight in the Senate to kill it. But despite Kerry's arguments (most of which were wrong), the Senate voted to support it.

So this has been vetted in Congress. The Senate supported it, the House didn't, and it was killed in a behind closed doors conference committee.

But that was then and things have changed.

Why it hasn't been part of the national energy discussion of the last few years?
Because after it was killed, nobody really knew about it because the scientists didn't want to speak about it because they didn't want to cause trouble. So it got buried. I asked Senator Boxer about it and she knew absolutely nothing. Jim Hansen never heard about it until he stumbled upon it by accident. While the project was going on from 1984 to 1994, they didn't talk about it. So nobody knew much about it back then and not much has changed. Blees had to ask a lot of questions to get people to talk about it. It was Blees's book that got the attention of Hansen and Lynas.

Has private money gotten behind this?
Nope. First off, nobody really knows about it. Secondly, the magnitude of the R&D ($1 billion) is too big for any company to handle especially in these economic times. The only institution with enough money to take the risk are governments. It was the US government that spent the first billion on this project. The EBR-II (as it was called) ran for 30 years without incident. Then Congress pulled the plug.

Why should this be put into the stimulus next month without any congressional deliberation, rather than have all of the issues looked at by expert committees (like E&C) over the next several months as we draft comprehensive climate-energy legislation? "The sooner the better" isn't really a convincing argument.
The main reason is that it's aligned with the goals of the stimulus package which include creating good paying jobs at home while simultaneously mobilizing the nation for energy independence and replacing our aging infrastructure. It addresses the climate crisis, the energy crisis and the economic crisis at the same time.

But the more important reason is that it is urgent. This is not global warming. It is a climate crisis. If you asked Al Gore or Jim Hansen or any one of the climate scientists who won the Nobel prize whether it is OK for us to continue to debate what to do, they'd tell you that the planet is dying and the sooner you act to save it, the better your chances. Some scientists have pointed out that we have wasted so much time before taking definitive action that we may already be too late. Of course, that isn't a problem if Congress has found another planet for us to all live on. But they haven't. We only have one planet and this project should have been restarted 14 years ago. Now, today's newspaper headlines say "Too late? Why scientists say we should expect the worst" referring to the irreversible planetary damage caused by our inaction.

Another way to look at this is to ask Congress the question : How much of the North Pole has to melt away forever before we treat the climate crisis with the same urgency as the financial crisis? Or how much of the US has to be covered in soot before Congress treats this with the same urgency as the economic crisis? Do we all have to be wearing gas masks every day like in China before we take some steps to displace coal plants? Or are we simply going to spend the rest of our lives having to wear face masks when we walk outside for the next hundred years or so?

I have news for you. That atmospheric brown cloud (ABC) that now engulfs all of India and half of isn't getting any smaller. It is a three km-thick layer of soot and other manmade particles that stretches from the Arabian Peninsula to China and the western Pacific Ocean. Every day, it's growing bigger and bigger. It may be out of sight right now, but I can guarantee you it's heading our way. USA Today says, "The huge plumes have darkened 13 megacities in Asia — including Beijing, Shanghai, Bangkok, Cairo, Mumbai and New Delhi — sharply "dimming" the amount of light by as much as 25% in some places." Among the effects of this phenomenon is a decrease in the monsoon rains over India in recent years, with potentially disastrous effects on the agriculture that sustains over a billion people. They are hastening the melting of the glaciers in northern Pakistan and India, with perhaps deadly implications for the rivers that flow from those headwaters. Pakistan without the "five rivers" and the Indus would be a wasteland.

So at what point do we stop the debate and treat this as a crisis? When it is too late and we are engulfed? Or will we react like the China government and continue to build new coal plants and make the problem even worse?

This is a crisis. In a crisis, you turn to your best expert and ask him what to do. You don't sit around debating the issue. You go to the guy who was right all along, the guy who had the most vision to foresee the crisis before it became a crisis.

Your best guy, the guy who sounded the alarm bells in his Congressional testimony before anyone else on the planet, Jim Hansen, is telling you point blank what to do.

When Hansen first learned of the IFR, he wrote in his August 4, 2008 trip report that the project shouldn't have been cancelled:

Bottom line: I can’t seem to agree fully with either the anti-nukes or Blees. Some of the anti-nukes are friends, concerned about climate change, and clearly good people. Yet I suspect that their ‘success’ (in blocking nuclear R&D) is actually making things more dangerous for all of us and for the planet. It seems that, instead of knee-jerk reaction against anything nuclear, we need hard-headed evaluation of how to get rid of long-lived nuclear waste and minimize dangers of proliferation and nuclear accidents. Fourth generation nuclear power seems to have the potential to solve the waste problem and minimize the others. In any case, we should not have bailed out of research on fast reactors.

However, as Hansen learned more, his writings became more emphatic. Here are some direct quotes from Hansen's November 21, 2008 advice to Obama memo:

All of the slack in the schedule for averting climate disasters has been
used up
. The time has past for ‘goals’, half-measures, greenwashing, and compromises with
special interests.

We have already overshot the safe level of greenhouse gases. Things are just beginning
to crumble – Arctic ice is melting, methane is bubbling from permafrost, mountain glaciers
are disappearing. We must move onto a different course within the next year or two to avoid
committing the planet to accelerating climate changes out of our control.

Accelerated development of fast and thorium reactors will allow the US to fulfill its obligations to dispose of the nuclear waste,
and open up a source of carbon-free energy that can last centuries, even millennia.

4th generation nuclear power is probably essential for
China and India to achieve clear skies with carbon-free power.

Prompt development of safe 4th generation nuclear power is needed to allow energy
options for countries such as China and India, and for countries in the West in the likely
event that energy efficiency and renewable energies cannot satisfy all energy requirements.

Deployment of 4th generation nuclear power can be hastened via cooperation with China,
India and other countries. It is essential that hardened ‘environmentalists’ not be allowed to
delay the R&D on 4th generation nuclear power

Do you think Al Gore would advise Congress to spend time debating the IFR?

Phasing in 4th generation nuclear would also lead to replacing our dangerous coal plants with safe nuclear plants. I'll bet you're surprised by that last statement...I sure was. But it turns out that there is more than 100 times more exposure to radiation from coal plants than from nuclear plants! In fact, the energy content of the radioactive waste spewed from coal plants is greater than the energy of the coal that is being consumed. Talk about waste.

My objective is to save the planet and get planet-saving technologies available as soon as possible. The fastest way to do that is to short circuit the debate and put this in as a line item in this stimulus package. Call me cynical, but I think that if this is allowed to be debated in Congress, it could set the project back for years while Congress mulls over the pros and cons. Look what happened last time. The arguments were aired. The Senate voted one way, the House the other. We could update the arguments and do it all over again. Why take the risk? If this was put in as a line item, is there really going to be opposition to giving $1.5 billion to DOE to build a demonstration IFR reactor? This is basically hedging our environmental risk. The sooner we do that, the better. If you want to kill it after the debate, do it. The amount of money wasted will be small. But if you decide to ratify the earlier decision, then it was smart to get it started now.

So I see the stimulus bill as a way to get a fast track approval on this important project.

So if the leadership agrees with the scientists, then this is one way to get things done.

The other way to position this is that the IFR solves the nuclear waste problem and there is this huge nuclear fuel disposal fund which now has around $25 billion in it (collected over the past 40 years) which could be tapped to restart this project. This is a far more economic way to get rid of our nuclear waste than any of the alternatives. There are 42,000 tons of nuclear waste in the US alone and I believe we've already wasted around $60 billion dollars in Yucca Mountain.

On August 7, 2008, the White House said that $96.2 billion dollars would be needed for storing nuclear waste at the Yucca mountain facility through the time it is sealed in the year 2133; that’s a 67% rise in costs from the 2001 estimate of $57.5 billion dollars.

This is chump change compared to that and the solution is far superior. The sooner we prove this, the more money we save. The only way to end the debate is to build a demonstration reactor.

By using the funds from the nuclear fuel disposal fund, no taxpayer money is used.

So it's a huge triple benefit: 1) immediate job creation, 2) solution to the climate crisis, and 3) solves nuclear waste problem more economically than any alternative that has been proposed.

Why this project deserves a billion dollar earmark more than the dozens of other alternative energy technologies that have been put forward?
Because #1 it solves our nuclear waste problem which is at least a $100 billion dollar problem. There is no other alternative energy technology which eats our nuclear waste for fuel. So a billion dollars to solve a $100 billion dollar nuclear waste problem is a good deal. You get the power for free.

Secondly, we need a technology to offer to India and China that is more attractive than coal. None of the alternatives you are funding now do that. But if we don't do it, the planet will suffer damages beyond repair. We must get rid of coal or we are hosed. Nothing we can do will matter.

This project will take 5 years if Obama orders the NRC to fast-track the certification of the PRISM and the longer we keep putting it off, the more damage will be done. It gets exponentially harder to stop global warming as time goes on. The least expensive approach is to start yesterday. While a billion dollars is a large earmark, it is tiny in comparison to the magnitude of the problem it solves.

Thirdly, because our government already invested 10 years and $1 billion into it already and then pulled the rug out from under it even though it met all expectations.

Fourth, because this technology was invented by our nation's top energy scientists at our top energy national lab to solve our energy problems. How can you not fund your own top scientists especially when they proved they were right and that we now need it more than ever?

How many jobs will this create? (the primary purpose of the stimulus), etc.
I don't know. But in general, it's hard to spend a billion dollars and not have it create a lot of demand. GE says they'd have most every machine shop in Pennsylvania busy for year.

Anything else you can provide in the way of materials that back-up your statements would be helpful as well.
The most important thing is to get on with the commercial demo, which can be done at relatively low cost and relatively quickly (under 5 years). The sooner we secure funding for this, the better. It creates options for us as a country and as a planet.

If the entire country was just diagnosed with an incurable deadly cancer and there were no treatments that could save our lives, would you fund development of a drug that some of your best scientists tell you is essential for stopping the cancer? Or would you debate whether that might be necessary or not?

I'm sure we can debate this all day just like we did in 1994 when the Senate thought it was a good idea and the House didn't. Hansen specifically warned against this as I mentioned earlier.

But things have changed since this was last debated: global warming is now the big elephant AND we still don't have a clearly better option than the IFR to stop coal.

You can't evaluate whether the IFR will do everything it claims until you build one. It may not be the best bet we have. We won't know for sure until we build one. You can find experts on either side of the issue. But all the experts who are unbiased who have been briefed will tell you it is a reasonable bet to make. And if you ask them if there is a clearly better bet to make, they'll tell you that there isn't. But people are hesitant to say this is the best bet because nobody knows whether it is the "best." Therefore, we need to be making some reasonable bets here with the knowledge that we might be investing in a technology which isn't yet proven. There are no guarantees for any of this.

One thing we do know for sure: this technology was invented by our smartest energy scientists who were aware of all the negative arguments. It is a reasonable bet to bet on their wisdom. Even today, Charles Till still believes that this is the best technology out there. And Charles Till is one of our country's most brilliant scientists.

I'm asking Congress to bet on some really smart scientists even though not every scientist will say it is a slam dunk. The point is that there are very smart scientists such as Hansen who think this is a good thing and that, combined with our lack of a clearly better alternative, justifies placing a big bet on these guys.

At this point, I can't imagine anything more important to the future of the planet. Right now, this looks like our best hope to get the world off of coal if we make it a national priority.

Other answers to the same question set:
IFR Q&A by George Stanford
IFR Q&A by Tom Blees
IFR Q&A by Steve Kirsch

Other documents of interest include:
Comments on the Misguided Termination of the IFR Project (George Stanford explains why O'Leary's reasons for canceling the IFR don't make sense)
Plentiful Energy and the IFR Story: Article by Charles Till explaining the IFR (a must read)
Tell Barack Obama the Truth -- The Whole Truth (article by James Hansen on why restarting the IFR should be a priority)
Mark Lynas: the green heretic persecuted for his nuclear conversion (article by Mark Lynas)
The Integral Fast Reactor (IFR) project: Q&A (summary of Q&A compiled by Steve Kirsch)

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