These are notable quotes from Glenn Seaborg’s 1993 autobiography “The Atomic Energy Commission Under Nixon“.
Breeder Reactor Beginnings
In the United States and several other countries, decisions were made quite early that a reactor employing fast neutrons, utilizing the uranium cycle, and cooled with liquid sodium, the so-called liquid metal fast breeder reactor (LMFBR), was the most attractive concept to pursue. Utilizing fast neutrons seemed preferable because non-productive absorption of neutrons is less in fast breeders than it is in thermal breeders; thus, the breeding ratio would be greater in fast than in thermal breeders. The uranium cycle was selected in preference to the thorium cycle largely because it had become familiar in work with the wartime plutonium production reactors, whereas little was then known about the physical and nuclear properties of thorium. In addition, fast breeders were thought to work better on the uranium than on the thorium cycle. Liquid sodium was selected as the coolant because of its excellent heat-transfer and small neutron-absorption properties and because it had little moderating effect on the speed of the neutrons. —pg 152
Breeder Reactor Implications
The full implications of such widespread use of breeders were difficult to grasp at once, but, if one thought about it, some glittering possibilities came into view. For example, Alvin Weinberg, then director of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and one of the most thoughtful of contemporary scientists, stated his belief that the breeder “would have to be ranked as of extraordinary importance in the history of mankind, only a little less important than the discovery of fission.” Weinberg, in fact, went so far as to predict “a resolution through nuclear breeding of the competition between population and resources” and to conclude that the “new age of energy is here, and [that] the extravagant claims made for nuclear energy when it was discovered are really coming to pass.” The indications that nuclear energy might have such redeeming social values to counteract its destructive uses were exhilarating indeed to many who had worked in the wartime atomic bomb project. —pg 156
While giving priority emphasis to the LMFBR, the AEC had for a number of years been giving a modicum of support to breeder concepts other than the LMFBR. Underlying the Commission’s thinking on this subject was an awareness that there might be technological difficulties with the LMFBR, which for a number of reasons seemed to be a high-risk endeavor. We were mindful also that in the development of other new technologies, such as the automobile, television, or, for that matter, light-water reactors themselves, there had been a number of competing variants at the start, and that putting these through the process of comparative evaluation after each had undergone some early development had been very useful in identifying the best options. Also, to the extent that an alternative using the thorium cycle could be developed in addition to one using the uranium cycle, energy resources would be vastly extended since thorium was estimated to be much more abundant in nature than uranium.
In his autumn 1969 letter complaining about the cost of the breeder program, Budget Director Mayo asked whether the AEC could not reduce the number of alternative breeder concepts it was supporting. In reply, we pointed out that in the previous five years we had eliminated seven major alternatives to the LMFBR, reducing the number we still wanted to support to three very promising approaches. These were the light water breeder reactor, the molten salt breeder reactor, and the gas-cooled fast breeder reactor. I argued that any further elimination should be deferred until some very important technical information was forthcoming on the basis of which industry could determine whether it wished to support any of these three concepts. —pg 175-176
The molten salt breeder reactor (MSBR) was being developed at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory under the direction of Dr. Alvin Weinberg, who lent his considerable prestige to efforts to promote it. Like the LWBR, it used the thorium cycle. As Weinberg pointed out, the MSBR had the advantage of very high heat-transfer capability. A drawback was that it employed slow rather than fast neutrons and so would not have a high breeding ratio. —pg 176
(Note: the high breeding ratio claimed by the promoters of the fast breeder reactor never materialized.)
Notwithstanding their advantages, neither the LWBR or the MSBR had much industry support. On the other hand, there was considerable support for the gas-cooled fast breeder reactor (GCBR), which employed the uranium cycle. More than forty utilities had joined Gulf General Atomic, Inc., in pursuing this concept. There was some analysis indicating that a GCBR’s doubling time and its breeding ratio would be as good as those of the LMFBR, its capital costs less, and its coolant, helium, much easier to handle than liquid sodium.
As Mayo indicated in his memorandum cited earlier, the Bureau of the Budget appeared from the first to feel that all the systems other than the LMFBR provided inviting targets for budget cuts. Consequently, it was necessary in each budget cycle to fight for their survival. In the Nixon administration’s first markup of AEC’s fiscal year 1970 budget, which occurred in March 1969, the LWBR was eliminated entirely, and both the molten salt and gas-cooled approaches were cut severely from the already low level of support advocated by the AEC. On March 17, 1969, we appeared before Mayo and his principal staff to appeal these and other proposed cuts. Admiral Rickover personally made the argument for the LWBR with a forceful presentation. The next day we learned that the LWBR had been restored at a reduced level, with the very difficult condition that we subtract an equal amount somewhere else in the AEC’s budget.
The necessity to fight for survival or to limp along on small budgets did not, of course, go down easily with the sponsors of the alternative approaches, and AEC commissioners and top staff had to spend much time hearing and responding to their appeals. On April 2, 1969, for example, the commissioners met with representatives of some 37 utilities who felt that the gas-cooled approach offered the best potential for achieving a reliable, efficient, and economic breeder. —pg 176-177
On November 10, 1969, we received the Budget Bureau’s markup for the fiscal year 1971 budget. This time all breeder approaches other than the LMFBR were eliminated entirely. After I protested in a conversation with Mayo he relented a little; we could keep alive the LWBR or the MSBR, but not both. He left it to the AEC to make the choice. The Commission found this task a difficult one. The LWBR was close to the completion of its development program; it therefore represented the less costly budgetary choice and the quicker payoff. The MSBR had broader, long-range potential but would cost a lot to develop. When it came time to vote, Commissioners Johnson, Thompson, and Larson voted for the MSBR; Ramey and I for the LWBR. This outcome was made questionable, however, by Larson’s former connection with the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, where the molten salt work was taking place. It was therefore agreed that I would have one more try at Mayo. I did so the same afternoon. I described to him the inconclusive results of our vote and suggested a possible solution, namely, to carry through the LWBR and also to carry the MSBR at a low level for a number of years just to keep it alive. I told Mayo that otherwise we might lose the team at Oak Ridge as well as a real chance for an eventual breakthrough on a very inexpensive source of nuclear power. Mayo reluctantly said BOB might make \$5 million available for MSBR, as well as a larger amount for the LWBR, but, again, only if the AEC volunteered a compensating cut from some other program. We were able to do that.
On November 25, 1969, the Commission and members of the principal staff met with Alvin Weinberg. Unaware of our negotiations on his behalf two weeks earlier, he had come to plead for greater support for the molten salt approach. Learning from us that the project was still alive seemed a relief to Weinberg, but the reduced level was an obvious disappointment. Not long afterward, in a wide-ranging letter to Joint Committee chairman Holifield, Weinberg wrote: “I believe the country’s almost single-minded commitment to fast breeder reactors, and its corresponding inability to support alternatives, particularly the molten salt breeder, is an error which I hope the Joint Committee can somehow correct in the not too distant future.” This appeal was unlikely to produce results—nor did it—because the Joint Committee itself had a strong bias in favor of the LMFBR.
In its first markup of our fiscal year 1972 budget, in December 1970, the Bureau of the Budget moved again to eliminate the LWBR. Appealing this decision, I expressed the view that it would be a mistake to close down the LWBR after so much money had been spent on it and when it was so near its objective. This and other items on which AEC appealed from BOB’s markup were reviewed by President Nixon and, as a result, the \$10 million we had requested for the LWBR was restored. The molten salt approach continued to limp along at its reduced level of support. —pg 177-178
In the 1970s, the government’s commitment to the LMFBR became more exclusive, and budgetary support for the alternatives dwindled. After enduring near-starvation budgets for a number of years, the gas-cooled breeder zeroed out at the beginning of 1981. As of 1980 some utilities were cooperating on the design of a 300 MWe GCBR demonstration plant, but the project was not pursued. Preliminary designs were also prepared for molten salt breeder plants, but these, too, did not come to fruition. In February 1970 a reactors subcommittee of the AEC’s General Advisory Committee classified the LWBR not as a breeder but as an “advanced converter.” Among several such concepts that the subcommittee considered, it recommended that the LWBR “should be assigned lowest priority.” Nevertheless, after several delays for technical and regulatory reasons, a light water breeder core utilizing the thorium-U233 cycle was brought to criticality at the Shippingport Atomic Power Station in August 1977. It operated well but was shut down because of budgetary restraints in October 1982, bringing to an end the pioneering Shippingport station’s 25 years of service. An analysis completed in 1987 indicated that during the operation of the LWBR core a modest amount of breeding—1.39 percent—had indeed taken place. —pg 178-179
Alvin Weinberg may well have been right. The AEC, with the Joint Committee’s active connivance, may well have erred in putting too many of its breeder eggs in the LMFBR basket. While correctly stating the case for alternative concepts in budget presentations, we gave them only token support compared to the massive emphasis on the LMFBR. When presidential support was sought, it was for the LMFBR only, and when the LMFBR was elevated to the status of a national goal with additional budgetary support, it all but assured that the alternatives would recede further into the shadows. Rather than throw such huge resources into a massive LMFBR program with short-term deadlines, the AEC might have done better to initiate a slower and broader program that would have afforded the opportunity to change course as difficulties arose. As later analyses would demonstrate (see chapter 12), there was not such great economic urgency to get breeder reactors on-line quickly as we first maintained. On the other hand, we did not fully appreciate this until the bulk of the program commitments had already been made. —pg 179