Yale’s Environment 360 magazine offers a creative look into he thinking of experts trying to get their arms around big environmental issues like climate change.
It examines the science, the politics and sociology of environmental issues that builds on the Ivy League university’s excellent environmental curriculum. This month’s issue places some attention on a technology developed on the Idaho desert and getting a second look in Britain.
The technology is fast reactors to generate electricity from plutonium. A fast reactor sustains its chain reaction by fast neutrons that need no moderator to slow them down.
Developed by Argonne National Laboratory at the Idaho National Laboratory in the 1950s, the technology was perfected at Experimental Breeder Reactor 2 by the 1980s. The reactor creates more fuel than it burns and can burn up much of the long lived waste along with it.
Yale’s story, Are Fast Reactors a Nuclear Power Panacea? looks at how the British are pinning their hopes for eliminating a large stockpile of plutonium they have on a commercial reactor based on the design of Idaho Falls engineer Charles Till called the Integral Fast Reactor.
The PRISM reactor, a design owned by General Electric Hitachi Nuclear Energy, Can burn the plutonium while creating electricity. It is not tapping the technology’s breeding capabilities in part because the British are using it to eliminate its plutonium surplus.
But as author Fred Pearce writes in Environment 360, the British interest is bringing back the technology that presented so much hope before the Clinton administration killed it in the early 1990s. Since then the U.S. Department of Energy has shown little interest and the INL, the lead lab for nuclear energy in the United States, hardly even acknowledges its existence.
Meanwhile anti-nuclear groups like the Snake River Alliance say nuclear is unsafe and an uneconomical alternative for carbon-free energy. Pearce acknowledges the nuclear industry’s track record has not been good for building plants on time and that it’s safety record needs improving.
But he believes the fast reactor’s ability to burn up waste trumps these problems.
“Those who continue to oppose nuclear power have to explain how they would deal with those dangerous stockpiles of plutonium,” Pearce said. “Whether in spent fuel or drums of plutonium dioxide. They have half-lives measured in tens of thousands of years. Ignoring them is not an option.”
Till’s Integral Fast Reactor addressed the safety issues and it also addressed concerns over nuclear proliferation. It was designed not only to turn itself off and cool itself down, but also to burn much of its nuclear waste and create more fuel than it used.
One of the last director’s of Argonne National Laboratory East, John Sackett, is on an advisory panel for Gov. Butch Otter’s Leadership in Nuclear Energy Commission, which meets again Friday. He would tell them that if the world turned to nuclear power to meets its energy needs and reduce carbon, uranium supplies would eventually become an issue.
Maybe the British will take over where Argonne left off and leap over the next generation of reactors to one that meets the social, economic and environmental concerns of the future.