Integral Fast Reactors – dispelling the pro nuclear propaganda about them

NuClear News August 16  Integral Fast Reactors (IFRs) George Monbiot told the Radio 4’s Today Programme on the 29th July that the “humungous waste problem at Sellafield could be turned into a humungous asset by using a technology such as Integral Fast Reactors (IFR) to turn it into an energy source.” He said “it gets rid of the waste, and according to one estimate could provide all the UK’s energy needs for 500 years.” He said that instead of wasting our money on Hinkley Point C Government should invest in the development of IFRs to “see if we can use it to crack two problems at once – our nuclear waste mountain [and] create a massive source of low carbon energy”. The only problem is, as Professor Catherine Mitchell just had time to point out, it wouldn’t work. To claim that they are proliferation resistant and help “use up waste” is just plain wrong.

The IFR would be a liquid-sodium-cooled fast-neutron reactor. The use of liquid sodium as a coolant has proved to be a huge problem in the past – it catches fire on contact with air. Over the years the world’s leading nuclear technologists have built about three dozen sodium-cooled fast reactors. Of the 22 whose histories are mostly reported, over half had sodium leaks, four suffered fuel damage (including two partial meltdowns), several others had serious accidents, most were prematurely closed, and only six succeeded. As Dr. Tom Cochran of NRDC notes, fast reactor programs were tried in the US, UK, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the USSR, and the US and Soviet Navies. All failed. After a half-century and tens of billions of dollars, the world has one operational commercial-sized fast reactor (Russia’s BN600) out of 438 commercial power reactors, and it’s not fuelled with plutonium.

IFRs would require an ambitious new nuclear fuel cycle because they would be fuelled with a metallic alloy of uranium and plutonium. In theory they would operate in conjunction with onsite ‘pyroprocessing’ to separate plutonium and other long-lived radioisotopes. Unlike the reprocessing plants currently at Sellafield they wouldn’t separate pure plutonium, but would keep the plutonium mixed with other long-lived radioisotopes.

Its novel technology, replacing solvents and aqueous chemistry of current reprocessing with high-temperature pyrometallurgy and electrorefining, would incur different but major challenges, greater technical risks and repair problems, and speculative but probably worse economics. Reprocessing of any kind makes waste management more difficult and complex, increases the volume and diversity of waste streams, increases by several- to many-fold the cost of nuclear fuelling, and separates bomb-usable material that can’t be adequately measured or protected. In the UK the Government would be unlikely to want to see more plutonium separated so any IFR built here – at least to begin with – would probably just be used to use up our huge stockpile of plutonium. The problem is that the plutonium is stored as plutonium oxide which would have to be converted to plutonium metal probably involving the fluorination of plutonium dioxide, normally with highly corrosive hydrogen fluoride, to produce plutonium fluoride, which is subsequently reduced using high purity calcium metal to produce metallic plutonium and a calcium fluoride slag.

IFRs are often claimed to “burn up nuclear waste” and make its “time of concern … less than 500 years” rather than 10,000-100,000 years or more. That’s wrong: most of the radioactivity comes from fission products, including very long lived isotopes like iodine-129 and technicium-99, and their mix is broadly similar in any nuclear fuel cycle.

IFRs’ wastes may contain less transuranics, but at prohibitive cost and with worse occupational exposures, routine releases, accident and terrorism risks, proliferation, and disposal needs for intermediate- and low-level wastes. It’s simply a dishonest fantasy to claim, that such hypothetical and uneconomic proposals can deal with the humungous waste problem at Sellafield.

It is claimed that IFRs could produce lots of greenhouse-friendly energy and while they’re at it they can ‘eat’ nuclear waste and convert fissile materials, which might otherwise find their way into nuclear weapons, into useful energy. Too good to be true? Sadly, yes. Nuclear engineer Dave Lochbaum from the Union of Concerned Scientists writes: “The IFR looks good on paper. So good, in fact, that we should leave it on paper. For it only gets ugly in moving from blueprint to backyard.”


One Response to “Integral Fast Reactors – dispelling the pro nuclear propaganda about them”

  1. A radical change in pro nuclear spin | noelwauchope Says:

    […] Big Nuclear.    The big selling point was the promise that Generation IV reactors would “eat the wastes“ of conventional reactors. They still push that promise to the world, but are now not keen to be […]

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