The Integral Fast Reactor (IFR) project: Congress Q&A
For more info, see:
George Stanford answers a set of excellent questions posed by a
congressional chief of staff:
The Integral Fast Reactor (IFR) project: A
critical technology for controlling climate change
Who is pushing it and what do they stand to
It's being pushed by people who understand
the urgency of the need to embark on a long-term, sustainable energy policy. I
don't think they have anything to gain, financially -- certainly I and my
colleagues don't. Corporations or consortia that get contracts might gain, but
they don't seem to be pushing at this point.
Who is opposed to it?
The main opposition comes from
environmental groups with a strong financial interest in collecting
contributions from a worried public. While they tend to get many facts wrong,
the fundamental flaw in their position is their failure to recognize that the
world is turning more and more to nuclear power as an important part of their
energy mix, and that U.S. leadership in the field is vital for preventing the
largely unsafeguarded spread of weapons-capable technology.
There also is a marked tendency to seriously overestimate
the amount that intermittent, "renewable" sources such as wind and solar power
can realistically contribute to the nation's energy mix.
Why did this project get killed in the first
The Secretary of Energy, Hazel O'Leary,
said this: "The Integral Fast Reactor program is inconsistent with the
President's non-proliferation priorities for three basic reasons." For a brief
discussion of those reasons and their validity, see
Why it hasn't been part of the national
energy discussion of the last
For a confluence of reasons.
- The program was killed before it was quite ready for commercial
demonstration, so it could not be promoted as fully ready for deployment;
- resumed federal support would have been needed, and nuclear power was
- global warming was not front-and-center, as it is now;
- there did not seem to be an imminent energy shortage;
- there was no entity that saw the potential for a near-term profit;
Has private money gotten behind this?
General Electric claims to be willing and
able to do a commercial demonstration. I don't know how much of their own money
they have invested.
Why should this be put into the stimulus next
month without any
The seed money needed for a commercial
demo is a very tiny fraction of the proposed stimulus. The main policy
discussions would presumably come after the results of the demo are in.
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.
Why this project deserves a billion dollar
earmark more than the dozens
While other energy-producing technologies
might have one or more of the following features, the IFR technology offers this
of other alternative energy technologies that have been put forward?
- It is a technology for supplying baseload electricity -- an alternative to
coal. It produces no greenhouse gases or other atmospheric pollutants. The
intermittent sources, such as wind, solar, and tidal energy, cannot serve as
baseload sources without hopelessly expensive backup or energy-storage
- It can consume as fuel all but a residual 1% or less of the long-lived
transuranic elements -- the ones that cause people to want to guarantee the
integrity of the waste repository (such as Yucca Mountain) for a million years.
Waste from the IFR will decay to a level below any realistic concern in less
than 500 years, and that can be managed relatively easily.
- It can forestall the need for a new waste repository for decades, perhaps
- It has outstanding safety characteristics, including passive shutdown under
- It is now ready for commercial demonstration, in contrast to other
promising-on-paper nuclear-reactor concepts.
- It can gradually consume the inventory of plutonium now accumulating in spent
fuel around the world, until eventually the only (non-military) plutonium in the
world is securely segregated in an operating reactor system.
- It can rapidly degrade the excess weapons plutonium that is now on hand,
destroying its weapons potential while providing energy.
- Its fuel is readily recycled on site, with a non-aqueous process that is not
capable of producing weapons-usable plutonium from used reactor fuel, eventually
eliminating the need to transport spent fuel.
- With on-site recycling, the only fuel input an IFR plant needs is U-238 (or
other actinides) (one ton per GWe-yr) for makeup, and the only radioactive
output is a ton of fission products, with a small amount of actinide
- It is able to extract essentially all the energy that now remains in used
reactor fuel -- 20 times as much as has been used so far.
- By using depleted uranium as makeup fuel, it extracts from the mined uranium
more than 100 times as much energy as now is used.
- As a consequence, IFRs can supply the nation's energy without for the need
for further mining for centuries, and with no more need for uranium enrichment,
How many jobs will this create? (the primary
purpose of the stimulus),
I think most of the expenditures to
establish the IFR technology would be (or could be) domestic, with domestic
subcontractors, and there should be an international market for the finished
product. I'm no economist, but is it not true that the number of jobs per
dollar spent domestically is more-or-less independent of what the money is spent
Anything else you can provide in the way of
materials that back-up your
The increasing use of nuclear power around the world
means an increasing need for uranium-enrichment and fuel-reprocessing services.
Those are technologies that can be subverted to the production of weapons-usable
uranium and plutonium, respectively. Needed is some organized international
means to provide such services, with an iron-clad guarantee that a nation will
have access to fuel for its reactors even if it forgoes the acquisition of
indigenous enrichment and reprocessing facilities. The GNEP (Global Nuclear
Energy Partnership) is an important step in that direction. There currently are
25 nations signed up, but the process is sure to founder unless the United
States becomes actively dedicated to its success. The IFR fast-reactor
technology plays an important role in any GNEP-type process. Without U.S.
leadership, it's hard to see the needed international arrangements coming to
pass, and it will be every nation for itself.
statements would be helpful as well.
* * * * *
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:
O'Leary Problems.pdf (George Stanford
explains why O'Leary's reasons for canceling the IFR don't make sense)
Energy and the IFR Story:
Article by Charles Till explaining the IFR (a must read)
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)