Why we need to revive Argonne National Laboratory's
Integral Fast Reactor (IFR) Program

It is my contention here that the solution to both global warming and world dependence upon petroleum is revival of the US government's fast nuclear reactor program. I further contend, in this paragraph, that the nuclear power program should be taken out of the hands of private companies. It depends upon publicly-funded research, and has been strangled by the public's justifiable distrust of "risk-taking entrepreneurs" and their lawyers. Like the Tennessee Valley Authority, and the hydroelectric dams on the Columbia and Colorado rivers, it should be owned by the nation and run by trustworthy civil servants.

However, there is a hope by some of the engineers from that project, that it is so utterly necessary they are have designed a successor at a company Advanced Reactor Concepts


Or Perhaps the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR)

This is also a breeder reactor, which breeds fissile uranium 233U from natural thorium 232Th.
It uses thermal neutrons, and the fuel is dissolved in a liquid which needs no high pressure containment.
The website compares uranium unfavorably with thorium, but the tenfold advantage claimed does not apply to the fast neutron breeder designs (IFR etc.) for uranium to plutonium.

Alternatives


IFR description
Archived files from University of Berkeley

The IFR is a design, funded by the US government, and already tested on a scale larger than any wind power generator. A typical electric power station provides power measured in Gigawatts. We need to think in Gigawatts. That is millions of kilowatts (kW), where an electric stove has burners that consume one or two kW. An IFR produces about 1700 pounds of waste per year for a Gigawatt. A comparable coal-fired plant emits about 1,275,000 tons per year.

The sun itself is of course a nuclear reactor, and it is only recently that people have realised that it emits harmful radiation - i.e. the ultra-violet that tans sunbathers.

Radioactive elements are the longest-lived of all "fossil" fuels. They're not really fossil fuels at all, because they are older than this planet, or even its sun! The Earth itself contains liquid magma only because, before it condensed, our solar system's dust-and-gas cloud contained very long-lived radioactivity, produced in some long-dead star's final cataclysm. Without the radioactive potassium, thorium, uranium, and other elemental isotopes, Earth's core would have cooled solid in a few tens of millions of years.

Most current commercial reactors use only the isotope 235, which is 0.7% of the metal when mined and chemically refined. But not all of the isotope can be concentrated into the fuel rods, and only about half of it can be used by current commercial reactors. But when its isotope 238 is made available for fission, more than 200 times as much energy per ton can be obtained. For practical purposes, the supply is inexhaustible. There is even another way to obtain fissile fuel, by transmuting thorium into uranium's isotope 233.

Questions about..


The Alternatives to nuclear power


Coal is Not Cheap

No, it isn't, and it cannot be clean. There was a time, in my lifetime, when coal was burned in domestic fires, and a fine red hot bank of it was the sign of winter comfort. I myself have made toast on a toasting fork before such a fire. But the buildings around me in my home town, Edinburgh, all carried a coat of black soot. London was worse, and had poisonous "pea soup" fogs. Then we got a kind of "clean coal" The coal-burning electrical generators burned the fuel more completely, so electric fires created fewer particulates (soot). But even now, the cost in carcinogens and environmental destructants wantonly and routinely released into the atmosphere by coal burning is horrendous, even before you consider that every twelve tons of carbon burnt becomes forty-four tons of carbon dioxide. The cost of genuinely preventing the release of particulates and poisonous gases is so high that George W. Bush signed laws that relaxed the requirements upon new construction to do so.

Petroleum and "Natural" Gas

Most of the people who should be knowledgable about liquid petroleum agree that from now on the production supply must dwindle. Methane, which is obtainable from deep wells, might be of inorganic origin in the Earth, as it is in the gas giant planets. It would then be plentiful. But that hope is fading. Besides, methane is itself a greenhouse-effect gas many times worse than carbon dioxide, and every sixteen tons of methane produces forty-four tons of carbon dioxide. "Clean" natural gas is actually cleaned natural gas, i.e. the producers are required by the pipelines to ensure that only a tiny percentage of their gas is the naturally-occurring sulphur compounds. The producers remove nearly all the hydrogen sulphide, etc., and also all of the higher gaseous hydrocarbons (ethane, propane, butane), for which there is an excellent market.

Non-Fossil Alternatives

The rest of this essay examines the popular alternatives to fossil fuel power plants, other than nuclear fuelled ones. It asserts that the best available nuclear fission technology, the IFR, is environmentally superior to all other fossil fuel options, and to all non-fossil options other than efficient and frugal energy use.

Efficiency, Conservation, and Frugality

The quickest way to petroleum independence is to drive our cars less. When I car-pooled to work, we averaged more than 60 person-miles per gallon — in vehicles that got about 20 mpg.

For the next fourteen years, I did better than that on a bicycle, but only at significant risk to life and limb. I cannot recommend bicycle commuting, in spite of its immense fitness benefits and spectacular 'biofuel' efficiency, until safe, wide, and isolated bike paths are in existence, for every part of your journey. The political will to make this sort of thing practical seems to be non-existent.

Then I took to the subway, which cost more time than bicycling but was subsidized to the point of no financial cost to me. I walked the half mile to my nearest Metro stop.

A Hydrogen Economy

Some of the energy companies are boasting about how assiduously they are pursuing the possibility of replacing fossil fuels with hydrogen technology. Hydrogen is perhaps more portable than electric batteries, it burns clean, or better yet it produces electric power in fuel cells. But how do you get the hydrogen? You can get it either by electrolysis, as we do with aluminum, or by breaking down methane, which used to be a by-product of oil drilling. You can also get methane from methanobacterial decomposition of organic matter. Human and bovine flatulence releases quite a lot of methane, but it is a difficult source to capture.

Seriously, if you want hydrogen, you need a source of electric power. It would be the perfect off-peak use for nuclear reactors running at full power, round the clock. To some extent, you can regard hydrogen as portable electricity. For some purposes, it may be better than batteries.

Geothermal

This, of course, is a way to use pre-solar energy — the radioactivity that keeps the Earth's core molten. Geothermal power is great if you're willing to live next to volcanos and geysers. But drilling holes into the ground to get close to hot magma is a process that involves unknown risks. There really aren't very many suitable places.

Iceland and New Zealand do very well with geothermal. but Icelanders live in constant danger of violent eruptions. I don't think that ash from the Eyjafjallajökull eruption actually interrupted electrical generation. Nor do I suppose that the existence of Iceland's power plants in any way caused it, but I'd very much prefer not to be part of a team trying to harness the geothermal power of the Yellowstone caldera.

Solar Power

Again, we're making use of nuclear reactions — thermonuclear fusion. The sun supplies plenty of energy. Globally, we are even making the Earth capture it more efficiently, in a way that seems to provide greater power to hurricanes and tornadoes. The trouble with solar energy is that it is very dilute. Solar power strikes much of the Earth at about one Gigawatt per 3.2 square kilometres. But capturing it for human purposes is another matter. Even NOAA's best attempts at merely weakening hurricanes are reported as an unprofitable approach.
If your collector is photovoltaic or photosynthetic, conversion efficiency of 5% is optimistic. So you need 64 sq. km. of collector area for a Gigawatt. Eight kilometres, square, or if you prefer, twenty-five square miles. Hydro and wind power are alternative ways of concentrating it.

To illustrate the problem, consider Britain, a thousand years ago. It was entirely solar powered, and fairly sustainably so at the prevailing level of population and amenities. The peasants warmed themselves and cooked their food with wood, and used solar-powered agricultural machinery - oxen and horses, and their own muscles. Grain was made into flour with hydro-powered millwheels. The wealthy, who were few, had solar powered transportation - grain-fed horses. The total population was only a few millions. The entire land was wooded.

Wood is a renewable resource, but in most countries, and even at least one Pacific island (Aku-Aku), it hasn't been allowed to renew itself. The Industrial Revolution in Britain was when the woods had been reduced to a fragment of their former selves, and the fossilised solar power of previous eons, called coal, replaced wood. William Blake called the resulting industry "dark, Satanic mills". There are differing scholarly opinions whether the working classes were worse off then than the peasants of centuries before.

The aim of the modern Solar Power movement is to make sufficiently clever use of the available sunlight to avoid the use of filthy things like coal and petroleum. The question is whether we can be that much more efficient than our ancient primitive forebears.

Now it is entirely true that we can transport ourselves, without pollution, faster and more efficiently than on horseback. The requisite device is a bicycle, and it also requires an infrastructure of good road surface not infested with hurtling tons of metal. You can buy a really good bicycle for $1000. That will only buy you an almost worn-out motor car. I have personally demonstrated that bicycling is a feasible way to commute to work in the DC area seven miles away, summer and winter. But it is dangerous. There are a few days in winter when ice and snow make it impossible. Good washing facilities at the workplace help immensely in the summer.
But this will require a vast change in attitude. Possession of a motor car is considered a necessity in the USA, and mastery of a bicycle is not. Bicycling is popularly relegated to the category of "lifestyle", like pre-marital cohabitation, vegetarianism, and other self-indulgent practices.

Solar Heat Engines

There was a major solar heat engine project in progress in the Mojave desert of Southern California. Larger than all other solar project in existence in 2005, it was to generate 500 MW — half a gigawatt — with a host of 25 kW parabolic steerable mirrors driving super-efficient heat engines.
Unlike wind, it would have had the virtue of actually having an energy supply to coincide with the distributor's peak load, but with several square miles of land, it would only produce, at maximum, half the power of a standard base-load generator. And only in daylight, i.e. half the time.

Nevertheless, I was very disappointed to learn that it failed. In September 2011, Stirling Energy Systems Inc. of Scottsdale filed for bankruptcy.

Photovoltaics

The solution to America's summer peak electricity load ought to be rooftop photovoltaics, linked to the air conditioners that contribute so much to the peak load - about 16%. But at the moment, the capital cost is much higher than conventional power sources, although if coal burning was compelled not to emit any carcinogens the margin would narrow. If coal burning plants were compelled to capture and sequester all of their carbon dioxide, I'm quite sure that their cost would be entirely prohibitive,— even if it were possible, which I seriously doubt. Then again, a really vigorous market for semiconductor technology (computers) has been known to drive down the price quite spectacularly. But the power companies probably don't have the acreage necessary for gigawatt size photovoltaic stations, except in places like southern California, and maybe Texas.

Hydro-electricity

These are the descendants of the good old water-mills. They are quite efficient solar energy concentrators, because the energy is concentrated into all of the rainfall in the dam's catchment area. The water itself must have been evaporated over an vastly larger area. Of course, the energy involved in the heat of evaporation is wasted, as is that of raising the water vapor any higher than the dam surface. Nevertheless, large hydroelectric facilities generate Gigawatts of power.
They also do it in a superbly dispatchable way.
The main problem with hydro-electric supplies is that the geographic opportunities are already well known, and we're already using them. There's not many good hydro-electric opportunities available. Indeed, there may be already too many dams. Besides, when the dams break, the destruction and death toll are considerable. I believe that the world death toll attributable to dam failure, even if we don't count Britain's wartime destruction of Germany's big dams, exceeds the deaths attributable to all nuclear power plant failures, even Chornobyl. Three Mile Island probably didn't kill anybody, because it couldn't be hushed up.

Some of the hydro facilities already in existence should be abolished. The salmon and steelhead in the Snake river would benefit greatly from the replacement of all the hydroelectric dams on the river with a few nuclear power plants of equivalent capacity. Especially ones as efficient as the IFR.

Wind Power

The Netherlands reclaimed or created much land from the North Sea using windmills to pump the water. It seems a good idea.
But see The Truth About Wind Turbines by the late J.A.Halkema, a Dutch engineer.

In modern wind power designs, each wind-tower's maximum output is five or six megawatts. That's in a wind strong enough for "small craft warnings".
With half that windspeed, you get three-quarters of a megawatt — one-eighth of the rated power. The windspeed is a random walk, like the stock market and no more predictable. So you need thousands to match a multi-GW power station.

They are enormous, the latest have helicopter pads for servicing the nacelle. I doubt that it's wise to put them up on our hurricane-infested southern and eastern coasts. Quite possibly, the pollution from all the dangerous helicopter visits necessary for maintenance would negate any claim that this technology is "clean".

Alcohol Fuel from Corn, or Worse - Sugar Cane: A Fraud

"Gasohol" is viable only because the subsidy per gallon of fuel is huge when considered as a subsidy per gallon of alcohol additive. The chief beneficiary is the enormous firm of Archer, Daniels, Midland.

The idea is, that you concentrate the solar energy by photosynthesis. The plants convert carbon dioxide to carbohydrates like starch. To make alcohol, you ferment sugar. You can get the sugar from starch, by a process called malting, which gets the grains to germinate and do it for you.
In Scotland, single-malt whisky costs a lot more per gallon than gasoline does, and 100 proof whisky is half water. In fact, the reason that potable alcohol fetches such high prices is that it is a far more efficient intoxicant than a fuel. Getting drunk is a way of ignoring your poverty. In really poor places like Ireland and the highlands of Scotland, burning peat used to be the only way to keep warm. Peat is obtained by cutting up the turf of wet bogs, and stacking it out to dry (when it isn't raining), until it's dry enough to burn. That's a labor-intensive process. Peat is what gives single-malt whisky its character.

But if you wish to convert sunlight to mere energy, even the productivity of what we simply call corn is not enough. Maize, a.k.a. "Indian corn" is a very nitrogen-hungry grass, and spends a lot of that nitrogen making stems and foliage. The nitrogen is usually supplied from the artificial fertilizer ammonium nitrate, using ammonium ions (NH4) made from atmospheric nitrogen and methane!. One molecule of methane (CH4) supplies enough hydrogen to fix one atom of nitrogen in an ammonium ion. Methane is the cheapest source of hydrogen, but for each molecule you use, you have to oxidize off the atom of carbon. Presto! you have just released a molecule of carbon dioxide.

Methane itself is an excellent fuel, also known as natural gas.

But once you have the corn grown, and its starches and sugars rendered into monosaccharide sugars, you still have another energy cost. For every six carbon atoms in a sugar molecule, two are required to pay the yeast for its labor. They are oxidized. Carbon dioxide is what puts the fizz in champagne, beer, or home grown ginger beer and not-entirely-soft cider. Then it costs you energy to distill the alcohol. You evaporate and recondense it.

Now admittedly I don't know how much nitrogen fertilizer, at what CO2 cost, it takes to produce a molecule of simple sugar in the resulting corn crop. I am not convinced that the solar energy conversion efficiency exceeds zero. It could be less. Do we get more energy out of the alcohol than we put into the fertiliser and the distillery? The entire equation might change if we could get genetically modified grain plants to enlist rhizobium bacteria to fix the nitrogen 'naturally'. But I suspect that the process would still be a lot less profitable than growing tobacco, hemp, coca, or poppies. Or perhaps we could permit the revival of home distilleries, so that the growers could make their money from legally-recognised moonshine. For every barrel of fuel alcohol, they'd be allowed to sell a few gallons of potable alcohol. Quota enforcement would be a nightmare.

It is reported by some enthusiasts that Brazil has production capacity for ethanol E85 motor fuel, from cane sugar. This is the same as 200 proof rum, adulterated 15% with gasoline to make it undrinkable. We have no figures on how much Brazilian rain forest we would require cut down and put in sugar cane to supplant entirely Saudi Arabia's petroleum production. Environmentally, it's not a good bargain.

One more thing about alcohol: one gallon of pure alcohol does not provide as much energy as a gallon of gasoline. It's good in racing engines, but only because they run at very high compression ratios. That makes the peak temperatures high, which makes the engines thermodynamically efficient. But such engines are hard to maintain. Fuel with a high "octane rating" actually supplies less energy per gallon than lower ratings. I suspect that they also emit higher rates of nitrogen oxides than less efficient engines, because at the higher peak temperatures, nitrogen from the air ceases to be as inert as it is when we breathe it.


In general, excluding the science-fiction possibility of bio-engineered algae being fed nutrients and high concentrations of carbon dioxide, biofuels have no chance of bettering the energy capture of burning a total prairie-field of grass annually, or coppicing vast areas with willow. The entire county of Kent, England (about 3500 sq km, or about 1350 square miles) has been computed as providing in this way perhaps as much annual energy as the Dungeness B nuclear reactor, that is, about one gigawatt-year per year. (Dungeness is in Kent) My own estimate, starting with optimistic figures from coppiced-willow websites, was that 500 to 1000 square miles would yield one gigawatt-year per year of thermal energy, which would then be fed to a heat engine such as a steam turbine or a Stirling engine, and the electrical output depends upon the efficiency of that engine and the generators.

Summary

None of the popular solar alternatives, since hydro-electric dams ceased to be popular, can generate Gigawatt quantities of energy without requiring tens or hundreds of square miles to capture the solar energy. One of the big problems with parabolic mirror collection is the length of the shadow of each collector in the first and last two hours of sunlight. Strictly speaking, hydro-electricity is not even an exception, since the catchment area for each dam is far bigger than just the water surface impounded behind it. As for terrorists, consider Britain's dam-busters exploit in WW II.

A nuclear power plant is so compact that, if properly designed, it is small enough to be resistant to attack with anything less than nuclear explosives. The IFR design is better than anything that France has, and France generates about 80% of their electricity, by nuclear fission, without emitting any carbon dioxide or carcinogens. Perhaps Norway does as well, using hydro, but Norwegians are exceptionally well endowed with fjords.


Postscript

China has just completed one of the most environmentally destructive projects ever. They have built a hydroelectric dam on a three-river basin. In essence, it is their best way of harnessing solar power over the entire catchment area of those rivers. I do not know whether, if the IFR had not been slain and abandoned in 1994, we might have been in a position to license the Chinese to build a well-monitored IFR instead. Note that the IFR was, from the beginning, designed to be resistant to plutonium diversion either by thieves or by the operators/owners.

Likewise, the Bush government made a deal to waive the ban on plutonium stockpiling by India.


Dispatchable electric power

When the load suddenly increases, or a supplier suddenly drops out, it is essential to the stability of the power grid that reserve capacity be engaged — dispatched — almost immediately. It is usually necessary to provide "spinning reserve" to supply this.
Less than fully loaded hydro turbines are ideal spinning reserve.
Wind turbines are the exact opposite — they require spinning reserve up to almost their full nameplate capacity.

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