In one corner are people who are certain that breeder reactors that can effectively use the earth’s massive supply of fertile isotopes — thorium and uranium 238 — should be pursued as rapidly as possible with the assistance of prioritized government funding. In the other corner are people who are just as certain that those devices have been proven to be such costly failures that it would be absurd to invest any more resources in their development.
Positions in the separate camps harden further as the proponents introduce the notion that breeder development is urgently important. According to their passionately expressed logic only breeder reactors will avert the inevitable hardship associated with gradually running out of accessible fossil fuels and depleting the earth’s precious store of uranium 235.
That isotope, representing just 0.7% of mined uranium, is the only naturally occurring isotope that fissions so easily that it can serve as the tinder to get the breeder reactor fires burning well enough to sustain the millennium-long process of converting the wet log isotopes of thorium and uranium 238, providing all the power humanity will ever need or want as the breeders continue to consume both kindling and logs.
Opponents fight back with equally emotional rhetoric. They assert that the process of converting fertile isotopes — the wet logs of a sustainable actinide fire — produces materials that will inevitably be diverted into producing explosives with the potential to destroy life on earth.
Proponents return fire with another volley. Not only will breeder reactors enable mankind to have as much energy as it can ever want, but that energy production will not release carbon dioxide. According to the most vociferous of the crowd, we all know that the earth’s atmosphere already has a dangerous concentration of that compound so if humanity does not turn to breeder reactors, all life on earth is at risk of a different end that may be only a little slower than one caused by the widespread use of nuclear explosives.
There is little ground given from either side. The battle has been going on for more than half a century.
There was enough movement in the early years in the US and Europe to produce a number of costly projects that consumed substantial quantities of financial resources, produced good-paying jobs, provided valuable training and experience, enabled a few useful scientific advances and taught those who paid attention a bit about what does not work in breeder reactor design and construction. Project cancellations caused a lot of dislocation, some unemployment and left residues that can be described as hazardous wastes with no real plan or resources for the clean up.
Those failures, often with numerous details omitted, provide plenty of fodder for the opponents.
There were also notable successes. Examples include the nearly flawless, 30-year run of the EBR-II in Idaho and the continuing, 35-year long operation of the BN-600 in Russia. The successes, like the successful flight at Kitty Hawk in 1903, prove that breeders can be built so that they function reliably and safely.
Like the Wright brothers, the people who achieved success in an endeavor where many others had failed took a different approach informed by carefully obtained experimental knowledge. They made adjustments in areas where their initial designs proved to be flawed and refined areas that proved to be well-chosen.
Unfortunately, the opponents have the easier task in this tug of war. They achieve their desired success with a stalemate that stops all movement. They have plenty of inertia on their side and have proven the ability to call in strong reinforcements whenever the breeder reactor advocates appear to gain any ground. In the US, the opponents achieved their stalemate in 1994 when the Integral Fast Reactor (IFR) project was cancelled with help from both parties.
Though it hasn’t been terribly visible so far, the proponents have achieved a small amount of movement in recent years. China, India and Russia all have substantial breeder reactor programs with interest in both fast and thermal spectrum breeders and the UK has expressed cautious interest in using GE’s PRISM, a reactor that can be configured to be a breeder, as a way to consume its existing inventory of separated plutonium.
Aside: I think that is the wrong way to use a valuable raw material stockpile, but that is a topic for a different day. End Aside.
One of the best indicators of movement towards building breeder reactors is to watch for activity by the opponents. They start tugging a little harder, generating some effect with their well-rehearsed chants, and calling in their ever ready reinforcements, including stalwarts from the hydrocarbon economy and the climate change denial community.
The Hill Blog recently posted an opinion piece by M. V. Ramana, a representative of a firmly established group of opponents headquartered at Princeton University. That Feb 3, 2015 piece, titled Go slow on fast reactors rehashes many of the standard opposing arguments – fast reactors are not really advanced, they have been tried before, their coolant is flammable, we don’t need to breed because there is plenty of uranium for a dying industry, and breeders produce plutonium that has a “obvious connection with nuclear weapons programs.”
It is a little amusing to note that he appeals to the highly respected technical authority of the U. S. Congress to support his argument.
The U.S. Congress affirmed the uneconomic nature of breeders, not to mention its implications for non-proliferation, it voted to terminate taxpayer support for the prototype Clinch River Breeder Reactor in Tennessee in 1983 and the entire DOE breeder program in 1994.
Steve Kirsch, an entrepreneur and philanthropist, who has devoted a good deal of the past five years to understanding and sharing the implications and technology of the IFR program provided a couple of important comments, including one that called out Frank Von Hippel, one of the long-time leaders of the team that opposes the IFR, a one of Ramana’s colleagues at Princeton.
His arguments for breeder reactor development include: we have had some success in the past, we have plenty of room for improvements, there really are problems associated with the continued dominance of fossil fuels, renewables have proven that they are fundamentally unreliable as a power source, and we really do need to finesse “the waste issue” in a more productive, creative way.
The proponents should look at history and recognize that high-priority, government-funded program designed to jump start breeder reactor development by building a full scale, commercially viable demonstration plant would not be a successful course of action in the United States.
It hands too much power to the opposition by putting the financial decisions into the annual appropriations process, a situation that is doomed to failure for a project that needs sustained, patient investment. Remember this?
There are better product development models available that would allow steadily increasing acceleration in development with reasonably short term commercial successes used to provide the resources required to refine the product and make it a reliable tool for the development of an improving world. The available resource is essentially inexhaustible, not only in terms of the raw materials required, but in terms of the human ingenuity that will think of now inconceivable ways to improve the systems.
The world is not going to end if we develop and improve breeder reactors. It won’t end if we don’t develop breeder reactors. There are legitimate reasons to state that sodium fast reactors are not the only option to improve our ability to use fertile isotopes, even if there is a good case for stating they are one of the most immediately available options.
Extreme arguments lead nowhere, but they favor the opponents since a stalemate achieves their desired outcome of no development. The discussion needs to move away from a bi-polar one is which there are only two sides with mutually exclusive goals.
Please imagine the creativity that could be unleashed if we hand humanity refined power sources that make better use of mined resources and are able to convert materials that are too often demonized as hazardous waste into reliable, controllable, ultra-low emission energy.
Photo Credit: Fast Reactor Development/shutterstock