An article published to OnLine Opinion about the Integral Fast Reactor (IFR) was so brain-spinningly inaccurate and full of mangled information, that it gave me and Tom Keen the opportunity to write a good clear technical account of what IFR is and how it actually works. This article is perhaps one step up from the very basics of IFR, which you can read about in this earlier piece. You can also get the basics from this great video.
I have posted the first third or so of the more detailed article here, with a link to OnLine Opinion for the rest. Your comments are welcomed here, but probably best over at OnLine Opinion.
Nuclear technologies are a key to reducing carbon emissions, so let’s understand how they really work.
Here’s a sound principle: When writing opinion pieces that criticise internationally renowned scientists, use the best possible information. Especially when the subject is energy, and the object of your criticism sits on the panel for the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for energy: the Global Energy Prize.
When Noel Wauchope criticised Barry Brook’s position on Integral Fast Reactor (IFR) technology (Answering Barry Brook on Australia’s nuclear power future 12 June 2012), she didn’t adhere to this principle. While fast reactors are a general suite of technologies, the IFR is quite specific. Just a few months ago, the lead designers of this system, Charles E. Till and Yoon Il Chang from Argonne National Laboratory, published a comprehensive work for the non-specialist called Plentiful Energy. This book explains what the IFR is, how it works, how it was developed, and the host of advantages it brings. It makes it clear why the IFR design is special among fast reactors.
Wauchope’s piece is a litany of confusions and avoidable factual errors. This is dangerous, because bad information risks killing momentum for a technology that will be critical to solving a host of hitherto intractable problems.
Before getting into the details of the IFR, let’s start with a few points of fact. Nuclear energy, in all of its forms, currently supplies approximately 14% of global electricity demand. It is a mature energy source, with over 14,500 cumulative reactor-years of commercial operation in 32 countries. Numerous independent life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions analyses have been done on nuclear energy, from mining through to decommissioning. The verdict? The carbon footprint of nuclear energyis about the same as wind energy, and substantially less than solar photovoltaics, solar thermal and biopower (1). And of course, much, much less than coal. With the development of next-generation technologies, nuclear fission is an inexhaustible source of energy.
Enter the IFR. Developed at Argonne National Laboratory and demonstrated at the Argonne West site in Idaho, USA, from 1984to 1994,this technology was developed specifically to improve the safety, economy, fuel-fabrication process, fuel supply, and proliferation challenges of currently commercial reactors. The IFR is also able to use current stockpiles of nuclear “waste” and even depleted uranium as fuel, increasing the fuel efficiency of the nuclear cycle 150-fold. In fact, we have already mined enough uranium to power the world for hundreds of years using this technology.
Too good to be true? Not according to GE-Hitachi, which is proposing to build a commercial-scale (311 MW) version of the IFR called the Power Reactor Innovative Small Module(PRISM) in the UK right now, to deal with unwanted stockpiles of separated plutonium.
But Wauchope raised the spectre of many serious sounding problems. Is she on the money? She made much of the sodium coolant used in the IFR. True, liquid sodium reacts strongly with air and water. You might stop at the basic characteristic of “reacts with air and water”. Thank goodness the designers thought a bit harder, and relied on decades of hard-won engineering know-how.
Read to the end at http://www.onlineopinion.com.au/view.asp?article=13746&page=1