I have no problem with support for alternative nuclear technology, but compared to the very techie LFTR crowd, the IFR crowd offers far less technical information. This in turn makes verifying claims about the IFR far more difficult. Yesterday I wrote the following comment to Barry Brook
Barry, One of my complaints about renewable supporters is that they ignore potential debates among themselves. I think it is better for us to lay the cards out on the table, and let the public know that there may be choices to make. Part of the bitterness at ORNL stemmed from the fact that hundreds of millions of dollars that could have been spent or MSR development, was spent instead on the poorly designed Clinch River Breeder Reactor that was built in Oar Ridge, but was not an Oak Ridge project. There was also the feeling that Argonne and INL stabbed ORNL in the back as part of the IFR deal.
I am concerned that IFR advocates confuse inherent safety features, such as a negative coefficient of reactivity with inherent safety. LFTR advocates have no reason to assume that the LFTR is more likely to leak than IFR users do, yet we tend to discuss the barriers to FP escape in the event of leaks, while IFRs tend to think tell us that we need not be concerned about IFR leaks.
Beyond that IFR need to think about what are the problems of the IFR and how they might be solved. This is very much the focus of Energy from Thorium discussions. IFR advocates need to try to assess IFR costs, and focus discussion on how IFR costs might be lowered. If the IFR costs $3.00 per watt, and the LFTR costs $1.50 per watt, the IFR will be an also ran. So far IFR advocates have not offered us any reason to think that the IFR will be cost competative with the LFTR.
Tom Blees is the leading IFR cheerleader. Tom responded to my comment:
Charles, there was virtually no discussion at all about LFTRs since the Fifties. IFRs, on the other hand, proceeded with their development and carried it to the point of commercialization, where it’s now stuck. Much of the sort of discussion among LFTR advocates is the sort of discussion that was not only carried on by IFR researchers but which was tested at length and resolved.
I’m sorry I haven’t been able to find the time to create a discussion site for IFRs like Kirk developed with you and others for LFTRs. That would certainly be good for public education. I can tell you that much of the sort of discussion and openness about potential problems with IFRs has been going on, and continues every day, albeit not on a blog site. Barry and others have long been involved in such discussions with several of the developers of the IFR, which is perhaps why we’re more enthusiastic about it than you. I’ve been researching it for a decade, having started with no preconceptions whatsoever about nuclear power of any kind. As far as I can tell, nobody’s trying to sweep potential IFR problems under the rug. We’re just trying to get one built.
I just went back and read your page you cited above. I have no reason to doubt that if LFTRs and their related designs had been pursued we’d likely be seeing them running today, and I do believe we should pursue the research. But since the IFR is actually ready to be built and since the climate change crisis is at the door, if the IFR is safe to build we should build it and pursue LFTR research too.
On your page you wrote:
IFR concepts during the 1990’s included the notion of factory constructed modular reactors. But no assessment has been yet offered on possible interaction between IFR size and safety. Safety is a far more critical issue for the IFR than for a MSR for obvious reasons. The NRC has not yet developed safety concepts for either the LFTR or the IFR, but given the implications of major safety problems such as a coolant leak or a core rupture, IFR safety requirements are likely to be far more stringent, and costly to meet.
I’ve gotten risk assessment studies for the PRISM reactor and provided them to Kirk Sorensen, the same ones that the NRC has already seen. There has indeed been an assessment of safety vs size in IFRs, which has guided the PRISM development to determine a 300-360 MWe size for reactor modules. The costs for this have been taken into consideration, with an estimated power cost for IFR-produced electricity coming in at about 4.6¢/kWh.
I agree with Barry that the hazards of sodium have been far overblown. It’s a relatively simple engineering problem, one that’s being dealt with in half a dozen countries that are building or planning to build sodium-cooled fast reactors. I also believe the cost and complexity issues are usually baseless. Certainly we could afford to build one to discover what the results are in this regard. If we develop both and the LFTR ends up proving to be a superior design, so be it. But forsaking one in favor of the other is a needless restriction on our ability to bring to a close the era of fossil fuels.
Tom’s comments suggest good reasons why we should be having this debate now. From the very start Tom appears to be very poorly informed. For example Tom claims:
there was virtually no discussion at all about LFTRs since the Fifties.
This comment is astonishing. The EfT document archive contains links to hundreds of papers, studies and reports related to Molten Salt Reactor technology from 1960 onward. A simple review of ORNL study and report titles indicates that ORNL continued to offer new insights into Thorium cycle MSR technology unto about 1980. Numerous papers on Thorium/MSR technology regularly appear in professional journals from scientists in as many as a dozen countries during the last 30 years. An appreciable literature in French and English has emerged from France during the last decade. And there is at present a far deeper, far more detailed discussion of LFTR yechnology on the internet than is the case for LMFBR technology.
Tom claims: Much of the sort of discussion among LFTR advocates is the sort of discussion that was not only carried on by IFR researchers but which was tested at length and resolved.
We of course have to take to Tom’s word for this because Tom acknowledges:
I haven’t been able to find the time to create a discussion site for IFRs like Kirk developed with you and others for LFTRs.
So we don’t have access to the documents that might back uyp Tom’s claims. My comment was that no risk assessment had been offered. A risk assessment that is distributed in private, which has as far as I know, no peer review, has not been offered. Tom tells us
I’ve gotten risk assessment studies for the PRISM reactor and provided them to Kirk Sorenson, the same ones that the NRC has already seen. There has indeed been an assessment of safety vs size in IFRs, which has guided the PRISM development , , ,
So we have assertions made on the basis of proprietary studies with no reference to peer reviewed publications of the findings. Now I have no reason to doubt that Tom and Barry are honest people, or that they have diligently sought out information, but the private conversations with scientists and PR types working for commercial interests, the communication of privately-held proprietary information that has not been peer-reviewed cannot serve as a surrogate for the rest of us. My criticisms are nothing to those which Tom and Barry will face from the wildly misnamed “Friends of the Earth.
Alvin Weinberg once shared his views on LMFBR’s. Weinberg summerized his observations:
although we cannot identify physical limits that make a world of 7,000 large LMFBR’s impossible, one would have to concede that the demands on the technology would be formidable. Two issues appear to me to predominate: first, the acceptable accident rate will probably have to be much lower than the Rasmussen report suggests. If one uncontained core meltdown per 100 years is acceptable (and we have no way of knowing what an acceptable rate really is), then the probability of such an accident will have to be reduced to about one in 1 million per reactor per year. This is the design goal for the LMFBR project in the United States. Second, a nuclear world such as we envisage will have long since had to make peace with plutonium. Ten tons of plutonium per day is mind-boggling. It is hard to conceive of the enterprise being conducted except in well-defined, permanent sites, and under the supervision of a special cadre -perhaps a kind of nuclear United Nations.
Thus we can hardly escape the energy demands, if it is indeed to may be an attention to detail, and impression that the price nuclear become the dominant energy system, a dedication of the nuclear cadre that goes much beyond what other technologies have demanded. It is only when one projects to an asymptotic nuclear future such as we have attempted that one recognizes the magnitude of the social problem posed by this particular technology.
If, as Tom tells us, private business interests are seriously developing IFR technology, this is good news. We can expect the commercial developers to take responsibility for raising the funds required to see their venture through to successful conclusion. If the state of IFR technology is as advanced as Tom indicates, developers will not need to spend anything like the 2.5 to 10 billion dollars on R&D which I estimate will be required before a commercial LFTR prototype could be built. I am awaiting the announcement of the official beginning of IFR prototype construction.
The developers, will however, face significant public questions and should provide us with open, on line access to all technical data.