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2006-05-22

Al Gore's fundamental misunderstanding of nuclear power choices

Read Al Gore in WIRED, part of his media blitz for his movie An Inconvenient Truth. Then, I saw BoingBoing link to an interview in GRIST.

We still have other issues.
For eight years in the White House, every weapons-proliferation problem we dealt with was connected to a civilian reactor program.
And if we ever got to the point where we wanted to use nuclear reactors to back out a lot of coal -- which is the real issue: coal -- then we'd have to put them in so many places we'd run that proliferation risk right off the reasonability scale.
And we'd run short of uranium, unless they went to a breeder cycle or something like it, which would increase the risk of weapons-grade material being available.

Ahem.

Here lies a fundamental misunderstanding of nuclear power choices.

ALL power stations now in service are breeders.

What have been named as "breeder" reactors are optimized for making Pu-239 from U-238, Pu-239 being the best variety of Pu for reactors (and bombs). Some kinds (isotopes) of Pu are bad for bombs because they fission too fast, and breeders are designed to minimize other Pu isotopes.

But, all PWRs (pressurized water reactors), BWRs (boiling water reactors) and gas-cooled reactor designs make Pu faster than they burn it.

The only design which burns Pu as fast as it makes it is the IFR, aka the "fast-flux".

IFRs burn everything and are very tolerant of isotopes other than the very best.

Using IFRs decreases the risk of weapons-grade material being available.

IFRs can run for years with the same fuel, unlike other designs that constantly require removing fuel for reprocessing. IFR fuel runs very hot (thermally), safely, for they're solid metal, unlike the fragile ceramic fuel elements of BWRs, GCRs and PWRs. They run so 'hot' (radioactively) that stealing the fuel to make a bomb is impractical; the thieves could not survive long enough to make it out the front gate.

IFRs 'poison' the fuel rods very quickly with the Pu-240 and other isotopes you can't make a bomb with. And, they will run for years without removing those fuel elements because the sodium moderator lets fast neutrons create fission.. so the fuel keeps going long after they'd stop in other types of reactors from the aforementioned "poisoning" by daughter products.

We can even use thorium (yes, the same thorium you take camping in Coleman lantern mantles) as fuel in an IFR, extending further our natural resources.

Much more heat (200x than in conventional designs) is extracted over time from the same amount of atomic fuel, and much less waste is left over after the fuel rods are eventually removed.

That greater efficiency means the fuel isn't dangerous for many millenia, too.

Reprocessing is on site, BTW, since reprocessing is chemically much simpler and reuses so much more of the fuel. It results in what little waste there is, being no more 'hot' than the ore it came from, after only 200-300 years of cooldown, instead of millenia.

The IFRs are also passively safe; if everyone walked away, the plant would shut itself down (Doppler broadening). That's been tested and proven at the EFR-II site in Idaho.

Hmm...

* Can't use the spent fuel for bombs (solves Mr. Gore's objection) AND

* Burns up our excess plutonium from decommissioned bombs AND

* Burns up high-level 'waste' from other reactors which would otherwise need to be stored for millenia AND

* Much more efficient at providing power for the fuel we have (we have 500 years' U-238 fuel on hand, untold amounts of Pu convertible to fuel, and 100,000 years using proven reserves and high-level waste) AND

* Much less nuclear waste AND

* A much safer plant that shuts itself down by its very design AND

* What little waste there is is less dangerous and 'hot' for much less time.

Looks like a solution to me. After all, there are no hydrogen wells, and we have to get power to make that H2 from somewhere.

http://www.nationalcenter.org/NPA378.html
http://www.nuc.berkeley.edu/designs/ifr/anlw.html
http://yarchive.net/nuke/ifr.html
http://www.newton.dep.anl.gov/askasci/phy99/phy99xx7.htm
http://www.newton.dep.anl.gov/newton/askasci/1993/environ/ENV056.HTM
http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/reaction/interviews/till.html
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Integral_Fast_Reactor
http://www.iaea.org/inis/ws/fnss/fr.html