Diary

More nuclear option. A lot more

The more I read about fast reactors, the more I like. From a Q&A with a science writer:

Most existing nuclear power plants, including all the ones operating in the US, are of a type known as a thermal reactor, they use slower neutrons. But there’s another type of nuclear reaction useful for generating power that uses faster neutrons. We’ll call those types “fast reactors”. The concerns with existing thermal reactors can be grouped into several categories, and here’s how fast reactors compare side-by-side in each.

1. Thermal reactors use expensive fuel like uranium — often mined at great cost from unstable countries which puts us in a similar bind as foreign oil — and produce nuclear waste which remains dangerous for thousands of years. Storage of that waste is either expensive, temporary, or haphazard depending on the nation in question.

Fast reactors could power this country for decades using that same waste as fuel. Fast reactors also happen to be about 100 times more efficient in converting that radioactive mass into electrical energy than thermal reactors, meaning they use relatively less fuel over time. Moreover, the waste from some types of fast reactors decays safely away in a matter of decades, making storage a far less worrisome and way less expensive proposition. And if we include the depleted uranium (DU) left over from the enrichment process, it would be something like 700 years before any more mining would be needed, once the current “thermal” types of reactors have been phased out. At the current price of energy, the existing DU alone is worth trillions in kilowatts and dollars. Nevertheless, for now, the DOE currently plans to mix the existing DU into concrete, making it rather inaccessible for use as fuel. Fast reactors would take care of that waste while providing power in the process.

2. Thermal reactors can melt down and poison the environment. Case in point, Chernobyl.

Let’s clear up one misunderstanding: a nuclear power malfunction won’t result in a city-sized mushroom cloud, and the type of reactor that caught fire at Chernobyl will never be built again. Nowadays, designs exist that will prevent that from happening even under complete power failures, inner core breaches, or suicide truck bombs for that matter (And keep in mind that a well placed bomb in the wall of a big hydroelectric dam would handily threaten lives and property, too). Chernobyl did not have those new features, plus it was a poorly designed, graphite-moderated reactor. Even then it took egregious human error and utter jaw-dropping negligence to initiate the failure. New generation fast reactors do have those design features. And it should be noted that tens of thousands of people suffer or die every year from the effects of coal, from mining accidents to exposure to toxic substances and pollutants. Nuclear sounds scary, especially for those of us who grew up with the specter of WW3 looming overhead. But even with Chernobyl and other accidents factored in, nuclear power has a far better safety record overall than traditional fuels and power plants.

3. Nuclear power plants can aid in the development of nuclear weapons.

To a degree, yes, although it isn’t quite as simple as that. But the kind of fuel used in and the waste produced by fast reactors doesn’t lend itself any better to weapons grade research or production than thermal reactors. Besides, the nations that would do the most good from a global pollutant standpoint by using fast reactors instead of fossil fuels are the US, China, and India. None of those nations need fast reactors to develop nukes, all three already have plenty of nukes.

4. Replacing a significant portion of our grid using fast reactors would be expensive and take a long time.

Maintaining and defending oil supply lines stretched halfway across the world isn’t exactly cheap. And we’re not necessarily talking about ‘replacing’ anytime soon; we’re talking about building fast reactors in the future instead of building a bunch more plants that burn coal, oil, and gas. Most importantly, the US is extremely well equipped to improve and innovate when it comes to nuclear power. We invented it, we lead in it. It happens that we have a superior fast reactor design in mind called an Integral Fast Reactor (IFR). The IFR concept has several advantages over other kinds of fast reactors, which are in turn superior to thermal reactors in part for the reasons stated above.

In fact, it makes so much sense to build a prototype fast reactor it was already proposed and funded. But whereas India is already moving ahead with plans to develop fast reactor technology, and the Chinese have purchased two Russian BN-800 fast reactors, the Clinton-Gore administration killed the prototype US IFR in 1994 years before completion. The concept has yet to be seriously revisited, let alone refunded.

To recap:
— We have available technology that eats nuclear waste,
— which means we won’t need more uranium for over half a millennia,
— which means we are sitting on a gold mine of untapped stored energy,
— AND we won’t need Yucca Mountain for waste storage,
— AND this technology generates power 100 times more efficiently than existing nuclear reactors,
— AND fast reactors add virtually no CO2 to the atmosphere.
— AND the technology is safe.

What am I missing here? Why are we not pursuing this alternative more aggressively? Maybe someone else in the Obama administration has a different answer, but the answer I’ve heard so far is…

I asked him to describe the Obama administration’s position on nuclear power, which has been murky.

“We’re thinking,” he said.

Or perhaps the better word is dithering. The thing is, all this time and money and energy is being spent on capping and reducing CO2 emissions, topped with IPCC reports and Gore documentaries and capntrade, yet here is a technology that can slash CO2 emissions. Seriously, what am I missing here?