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integral fast reactors

Whatever happened to the 'integral fast reactor'?

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Jim Green ‒ Nuclear Monitor editor

A decade ago, nuclear lobbyists ‒ including prominent champions such as climate scientist James Hansen and entrepreneur Richard Branson1 ‒ were furiously promoting 'integral fast reactors' (IFRs).

IFRs would, if they existed, share features of other fast neutron reactors along with some less common or distinctive features including metallic fuel and the coupling of the reactor to pyroprocessing. The fuel would sit in a pool of liquid metal sodium coolant, at atmospheric pressure. Pyroprocessing would not separate plutonium alone; it would instead separate plutonium mixed with other actinides, thus reducing proliferation risks compared to conventional PUREX reprocessing.

IFRs would (according to their advocates) solve all of nuclear power's problems, providing cheap power, proliferation-resistance, a dramatic reduction in the volume and longevity of radioactive waste, and the ability to use troublesome nuclear waste streams (actinides) and weapons material as fuel.

IFRs would (according to their advocates) end global warming. GE Hitachi's Eric Loewen was described as "the man who could end global warming" in Esquire magazine in 2009.2

Indeed IFRs would (according to their advocates) go a long way to solving all of the world's problems. Esquire magazine implored readers to consider the magnitude of the problems that Loewen was solving: "a looming series of biblical disasters that include global warming, mass starvation, financial collapse, resource wars, and a long-term energy crisis that's much more desperate than most of us realize."2

These days, not much is heard about IFRs, and small modular reactors are the non-existent reactor type most heavily hyped by nuclear lobbyists. (More precisely, other types of SMRs ‒ in particular small PWRs such as NuScale's concept ‒ are heavily hyped.)

So, what has happened with IFRs? In short, not much:

  • The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission is involved in pre-licensing vendor design reviews for numerous reactor concepts including the ARC-100 design, which is based on IFR technology.
  • GE Hitachi is moving ahead at snail's pace in the US with its version of IFR technology, which it calls PRISM (Power Reactor Innovative Small Module), but no license application has been submitted to the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).
  • The US Department of Energy (DOE) is considering a bizarre and improbable plan to fund a PRISM reactor to be used as a test reactor to advance fast neutron reactor technology.
  • The UK has formally abandoned consideration of IFR technology for plutonium disposition, and there is no longer any serious discussion about the potential use of IFRs for plutonium disposition in the US (see the article in this issue of Nuclear Monitor: 'Integral fast reactors rejected for plutonium disposition in the UK and the US').

IFR technology in Canada

Advanced Reactor Concepts (ARC) and New Brunswick Power have agreed to collaborate on the future deployment of an ARC-100 reactor at NB Power's Point Lepreau site in Canada.3-5 ARC signed an agreement with GE Hitachi in 2017 to collaborate on development and licensing, and the ARC-100 design uses proprietary technology from GE Hitachi's PRISM design.5 Whereas the PRISM design envisages twin 311 MW reactors feeding a single turbine, the ARC design is 100 MW, and another distinctive feature is that ARC-100 reactors would operate for up to 20 years without the need for refueling.

ARC is a company founded in 2006 and involves a number of people who were previously involved in the EBR-II reactor project ‒ IFR R&D carried out at Argonne National Laboratory from the 1960s until the demonstration reactor was defunded and shut down in 1994 (with pyroprocessing work continuing to this day to address the legacy of nuclear waste … and probably continuing for decades into the future given that it has been a troubled and much-delayed project).

The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission is currently involved in pre-licensing vendor design reviews for numerous small-reactor concepts including ARC-100. A Phase 1 assessment of the ARC-100 design has been ongoing since September 2017.6

The hope is that Point Lepreau will become a hub for a nuclear export industry. But no decision has been taken to build a demonstration reactor at Point Lepreau and any such decision is years away.6 Construction of a demonstration reactor is no more than a "long-term vision" according to New Brunswick's energy minister Rick Doucet.7

Norman Sawyer, president of ARC Nuclear Canada, hopes that a single ARC-100 reactor could be built for C$1‒1.5 billion.6 But no-one is offering to stump up that sort of money. The Union of Concerned Scientists said the economics simply won't work: "The problem is that there is not sufficient private capital around to finance the development of even a single new non-light-water reactor, much less many different types. When you shrink the size of a nuclear reactor, you increase the unit cost of electricity because of those economies of scale."6

Current funding ‒ C$10 million from the New Brunswick provincial government (not all of it for ARC's project) and C$5 million from ARC ‒ will only cover the vendor design review process. That process might (or might not) be followed by a much more exhaustive, expensive and time-consuming process to obtain a license to construct and operate an ARC-100 reactor.6

Brett Plummer, NB Power's vice-president for nuclear operations, said that there have only been preliminary talks about how a first reactor at Point Lepreau could be paid for, and he suggested the possibility of a public‒private partnership.6 In other words, vendors such as ARC have received government funding for preliminary regulatory design assessment, no doubt they will seek government funding to prepare a license to construct and operate a demonstration reactor, and they want government funding for reactor construction.

ARC has also received a grant from the UK government "to provide documentation intended to demonstrate the technical and business feasibility of the ARC-100 … and its licensability under U.K. nuclear safety regulations."8 Perhaps the UK government should also provide the Union of Concerned Scientists with a grant to provide documentation making the case that nuclear vendors should provide documentation at their own expense?

The long, slow march of IFR technology in the US

Enthusiasts argue that IFR/PRISM reactor technology is ready to go on the basis of the EBR-II project at Argonne National Laboratory. But it isn't. A 1994 pre-application safety evaluation report by the NRC stated:8

"Although all major problems are currently being addressed, much research remains to be performed in order to establish the safety and reliability of the specific fuel concept to the burnups planned. The data base to support the metal-fuel system to be used in the PRISM design needs to be developed. …

"The PRISM fuel system … is a new concept. Many of the basic design principles have been developed from EBR-II metal-fuel experience. However, because of differences in material, geometry, and exposure conditions, this experience must be extrapolated to the PRISM design through the use of analytical tools that characterize the operational history and transient responses of the fuel system. Experimental data must be obtained both to support the model development efforts and to verify the integrated computer codes. …

"Although no new major safety-related problems in the proposed PRISM fuel system design were identified, many phenomenological uncertainties must be resolved in order to develop a set of analytical tools and a supporting experimental data base necessary for licensing."

Plans to apply to the NRC for a construction and operation license have been floated periodically since 1994. GE Hitachi has completed the NRC's 'preapplication review process'9, but no license application has been submitted.

In a March 2009 letter to the NRC, GE Hitachi indicated that it intended to submit a design application in mid-2011.10 In 2011, Tom Blees, president of an IFR/PRISM lobby group called the Science Council for Global Initiatives, wrote: "The suggestion … that fast reactors are thirty years away is far from accurate. GE-Hitachi plans to submit the PRISM design to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) next year for certification."11 But GE Hitachi hasn't progressed beyond the pre-application review process.

Blees also claimed in 2011 that China was building a copy of the EBR-II IFR prototype.11 That claim was false. If he was referring to the China Experimental Fast Reactor, it isn't an IFR clone, it took over a decade to build the 20 MW reactor, and it has been a failure.12,13

Blees said in 2011 that work was in train to "facilitate a cooperative effort between GE-Hitachi and Rosatom to build the first PRISM reactor in Russia as soon as possible" and that "if the United States moves ahead with supporting a GE-Rosatom partnership, the first PRISM reactor could well be built within the space of the next five years".11 Nothing came of that initiative.

Blees said in 2011 that the "Science Council for Global Initiatives is currently working on arranging for the building of the first commercial-scale facility in the USA for conversion of spent LWR fuel into metal fuel for fast reactors."11 Nothing has come of that initiative.

In July 2017, Blees reported the 'good news' that GE Hitachi "finally is applying for a commercial license for the PRISM."14 But there was no such application.

In October 2010, GE Hitachi signed a memorandum of understanding with the operators of the US DOE's Savannah River site to consider the construction of a demonstration PRISM reactor. It would be possible to construct a prototype without having completed the NRC's usual licensing procedures, as Savannah River is a federally-owned site.15,16 But nothing came of that initiative.

In October 2016, GE Hitachi and US company Southern Nuclear announced their intention to collaborate on the development and licensing of PRISM reactor technology.17 But little seems to have come from that initiative ‒ the websites of GE Hitachi and Southern Nuclear have no information other than the October 2016 announcement. Pro-nuclear commentator Dan Yurman suggested that the companies "may be anticipating future grant programs".18

In June 2017, GE Hitachi said that a nuclear industry team was "collaborating to potentially seek a regulatory license to deploy GEH's advanced PRISM sodium-cooled fast reactor design."19 The companies planned to pursue DOE advanced reactor projects based on public–private partnerships. In other words, they have their hands out for taxpayer subsidies.

To sum up … progress has been extraordinarily slow. One might have expected more interest if, as advocates claim, IFRs can solve all of nuclear power's problems and many of the world's most pressing problems. Interest in IFRs would have died altogether if not for a drip-feed of government funding stretching back decades:20

  • The EBR-II R&D project was government funded, and ongoing work on pyroprocessing is DOE funded.
  • 1985‒87: US$30 million from the DOE to study liquid metal reactor concepts.
  • 1988: US$5 million from the DOE for 'continuing trade studies'.
  • 1989‒95: US$42 million from the DOE for the Advanced Liquid Metal Reactor program.
  • A multi-million-dollar grant from the DOE, announced in 2014, for GE Hitachi to carry out a PRISM safety assessment.21,22

The most recent development is that the NRC has been working with industry on the Licensing Modernization Project to develop "regulatory guidance for licensing non-LWRs for the NRC's consideration and possible endorsement". On the basis of that work, the NRC hopes to issue a final regulatory guide in late 2019.23

But wait!

But wait … the Science Council for Global Initiatives continues with its bluff and bluster. Tom Blees claimed in November 2018 that:24

"SCGI is now deeply involved with expediting some of the most promising projects that we have been nurturing for several years. We would like to share all the details, but we are required to keep much of it confidential. What we can say is that our efforts to promote rapid construction of commercial-scale prototypes of three systems that could power the planet now involve the US, China, South Korea and others. The three systems are metal-fueled fast reactors, molten salt reactors, and the spent fuel recycling system called pyroprocessing."

Don't hold your breath.

'Versatile Test Reactor'

In 2018, Idaho National Laboratory (INL) subcontracted GE Hitachi to work with Bechtel to advance design and cost estimates for a Versatile Test Reactor (VTR) based on PRISM technology.25 According to INL, the reactor would facilitate the development of innovative nuclear fuels, materials, instrumentation and sensors.26 The DOE plans to decide in 2020 whether or not to proceed with (and fund or part-fund) the project.

The proposal is bizarre ‒ and improbable ‒ for several reasons.

Firstly, fast reactor technology has failed in the US as it has in many other countries.27,28 Why attempt a revival, especially in light of the hefty price-tag for the VTR ‒ an estimated US$3.9‒6.0 billion?29

Secondly, it makes little sense to choose a largely untested, experimental reactor type. The experimental reactor will itself be an experiment.

Thirdly, even if it was agreed that a fast-neutron test capability was needed, a new reactor isn't required. Ed Lyman from the Union of Concerned Scientists states:29

"In fact, there are ways to simulate the range of neutron speeds typical of a fast reactor in an already existing test reactor, such as the Advanced Test Reactor at Idaho National Laboratory or the High Flux Isotope Reactor at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. This could be accomplished by using neutron filters and possibly a different type of fuel. Going that route would be significantly cheaper: A 2009 DOE assessment suggests that this approach could achieve the minimum requirements necessary and would cost some $100 million to develop (in 2019 dollars), considerably less than the VTR project's projected price tag. Equally important, using one of the two currently operating test reactors could likely provide developers with fast neutrons more quickly than the VTR project."

Fourthly, if built the VTR would likely use plutonium driver fuel that is not only weapons-usable but weapons-grade.30

The VTR will most likely go the way of the 'Next Generation Nuclear Plant Project'. The DOE planned to build a prototype 'next generation' reactor to generate electricity, produce hydrogen, or both, by the end of fiscal year 2021. The project was initiated in 2005 but the DOE decided not to proceed with it in 2011, citing an impasse between the DOE and the NGNP Industry Alliance regarding cost-sharing arrangements.31


1. Mark Halper, 20 July 2012, 'Richard Branson urges Obama to back next-generation nuclear technology',

2. John H. Richardson, 17 Nov. 2009, 'Meet the Man Who Could End Global Warming',

3. Advanced Reactor Concepts,

4. World Nuclear Association, 10 July 2018, 'First partner announced for New Brunswick SMR project',

5. Dan Yurman, 15 July 2018, 'Argonne's IFR to Live Again at Point Lepreau, New Brunswick',

6. Connell Smith, 21 March 2019, 'Reactor developers propose a manufacturing hub — and a small nuclear plant',

7. Canadian Nuclear Association, 9 July 2018, 'New Brunswick should have second nuclear reactor: energy minister',

8. US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Feb 1994, "Preapplication Safety Evaluation Report for the Power Reactor Innovative Small Module (PRISM) Liquid-Metal Reactor",

9. Hitachi, 13 Nov 2018, 'GE Hitachi and PRISM Selected for U.S. Department of Energy's Versatile Test Reactor Program',

10. Duncan Williams, 20 Jan 2010, 'Under The Hood With Duncan Williams - GE Hitachi's PRISM Reactor',

11. Tom Blees, 4 June 2011, 'Response to a consultation on the management of the UK's plutonium stocks',

12. Nuclear Monitor #831, 5 Oct 2016, 'The slow death of fast reactors',

13. Mark Hibbs, 17 Feb 2017, 'Rethinking China's Fast Reactor',

14. Tom Blees, 4 July 2017, 'Good News!',

15. World Nuclear News, 28 Oct 2010, 'Prototype Prism proposed for Savannah River',

16. Savannah River Nuclear Solutions, 2010 Annual Report,

17. GE, 31 Oct 2016, 'GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy and Southern Nuclear to Collaborate on Advanced Reactor Development and Licensing',

18. Dan Yurman, 31 Oct 2016, 'Southern Signs On for the PRISM Advanced Reactor',

19. High Bridge Energy Development Company, 2 June 2017, 'Nuclear Industry Team Collaborating on Advanced Reactor Licensing and Development',

20. GE Hitachi, 7 June 2016, 'PRISM & U.S. Licensing',

21. Jenny Callison, 6 Nov 2014, 'GE Hitachi Receives Federal Funds To Assess New Nuclear Technology',

22. Tomas Kellner, 6 Nov 2014, 'This Advanced Nuclear Reactor Feasts on Radioactive Leftovers',

23. NRC, accessed May 2019, 'Industry-Led Licensing Modernization Project',

24. Tom Blees, Nov 2018, 'SCGI President's Message, November 2018',

25. World Nuclear Association, 15 November 2018, 'PRISM selected for US test reactor programme',

26. INL, 13 Nov 2018, GE Hitachi Awarded Subcontract for Work Supporting Proposed Versatile Test Reactor,

27. International Panel on Fissile Materials, 17 Feb 2010, 'History and status of fast breeder reactor programs worldwide',

28. Nuclear Monitor #831, 5 Oct 2016, 'The slow death of fast reactors',

29. Ed Lyman, 5 April 2019, 'There are Faster, Cheaper, Safer and More Reliable Alternatives to the Energy Department's Proposed Multibillion Dollar Test Reactor',

30. Edwin Lyman, 11 June 2018, 'UCS technical rebuttal to the Idaho National Laboratory's opinions on the Versatile (Fast) Test Reactor',

31. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, accessed 20 May 2019, 'Next Generation Nuclear Plant (NGNP)',

Pyroprocessing: the integral fast reactor waste fiasco

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

In theory, integral fast reactors (IFRs) would gobble up nuclear waste and convert it into low-carbon electricity. In practice, the IFR R&D program in Idaho has left a legacy of troublesome waste. This saga is detailed in a recent article1 and a longer report2 by the Union of Concerned Scientists' senior scientist Ed Lyman.

Lyman notes that the IFR concept "has attracted numerous staunch advocates" but their "interest has been driven largely by idealized studies on paper and not by facts derived from actual experience."1 He discusses the IFR prototype built at Idaho ‒ the Experimental Breeder Reactor-II (EBR-II), which ceased operation in 1994 ‒ and subsequent efforts by the Department of Energy (DOE) to treat 26 metric tons of "sodium-bonded" metallic spent fuel from the EBR-II reactor with pyroprocessing, ostensibly to convert the waste to forms that would be safer for disposal in a geological repository. A secondary goal was to demonstrate the viability of pyroprocessing ‒ but the program has instead demonstrated the serious shortcomings of this technology.

Lyman writes:1

"Pyroprocessing is a form of spent fuel reprocessing that dissolves metal-based spent fuel in a molten salt bath (as distinguished from conventional reprocessing, which dissolves spent fuel in water-based acid solutions). Understandably, given all its problems, DOE has been reluctant to release public information on this program, which has largely operated under the radar since 2000.

"The FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] documents we obtained have revealed yet another DOE tale of vast sums of public money being wasted on an unproven technology that has fallen far short of the unrealistic projections that DOE used to sell the project to Congress, the state of Idaho and the public. However, it is not too late to pull the plug on this program, and potentially save taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. …

"Pyroprocessing was billed as a simpler, cheaper and more compact alternative to the conventional aqueous reprocessing plants that have been operated in France, the United Kingdom, Japan and other countries.

"Although DOE shut down the EBR-II in 1994 (the reactor part of the IFR program), it allowed work at the pyroprocessing facility to proceed. It justified this by asserting that the leftover spent fuel from the EBR-II could not be directly disposed of in the planned Yucca Mountain repository because of the potential safety issues associated with presence of metallic sodium in the spent fuel elements, which was used to "bond" the fuel to the metallic cladding that encased it. (Metallic sodium reacts violently with water and air.)

"Pyroprocessing would separate the sodium from other spent fuel constituents and neutralize it. DOE decided in 2000 to use pyroprocessing for the entire inventory of leftover EBR-II spent fuel – both "driver" and "blanket" fuel – even though it acknowledged that there were simpler methods to remove the sodium from the lightly irradiated blanket fuel, which constituted nearly 90% of the inventory.

"However, as the FOIA documents reveal in detail, the pyroprocessing technology simply has not worked well and has fallen far short of initial predictions. Although DOE initially claimed that the entire inventory would be processed by 2007, as of the end of Fiscal Year 2016, only about 15% of the roughly 26 metric tons of spent fuel had been processed. Over $210 million has been spent, at an average cost of over $60,000 per kilogram of fuel treated. At this rate, it will take until the end of the century to complete pyroprocessing of the entire inventory, at an additional cost of over $1 billion.

"But even that assumes, unrealistically, that the equipment will continue to be usable for this extended time period. Moreover, there is a significant fraction of spent fuel in storage that has degraded and may not be a candidate for pyroprocessing in any event. …

"What exactly is the pyroprocessing of this fuel accomplishing? Instead of making management and disposal of the spent fuel simpler and safer, it has created an even bigger mess. …

"[P]yroprocessing has taken one potentially difficult form of nuclear waste and converted it into multiple challenging forms of nuclear waste. DOE has spent hundreds of millions of dollars only to magnify, rather than simplify, the waste problem. This is especially outrageous in light of other FOIA documents that indicate that DOE never definitively concluded that the sodium-bonded spent fuel was unsafe to directly dispose of in the first place. But it insisted on pursuing pyroprocessing rather than conducting studies that might have shown it was unnecessary.

"Everyone with an interest in pyroprocessing should reassess their views given the real-world problems experienced in implementing the technology over the last 20 years at INL. They should also note that the variant of the process being used to treat the EBR-II spent fuel is less complex than the process that would be needed to extract plutonium and other actinides to produce fresh fuel for fast reactors. In other words, the technology is a long way from being demonstrated as a practical approach for electricity production."


1. Ed Lyman / Union of Concerned Scientists, 12 Aug 2017, 'The Pyroprocessing Files',

2. Edwin Lyman, 2017, 'External Assessment of the U.S. Sodium-Bonded Spent Fuel Treatment Program',

The slow death of fast reactors

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Author: Jim Green ‒ Nuclear Monitor editor

Fast neutron reactors are "poised to become mainstream" according to the World Nuclear Association.1 The Association lists eight "current" fast reactors although three of them ‒ India's Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor, and the Joyo and Monju reactors in Japan ‒ are not operating. That leaves just five fast reactors, three of them experimental.

Nuclear physicist Thomas Cochran summarizes the unhappy history of fast reactors: "Fast reactor development programs failed in the: 1) United States; 2) France; 3) United Kingdom; 4) Germany; 5) Japan; 6) Italy; 7) Soviet Union/Russia 8) U.S. Navy and 9) the Soviet Navy. The program in India is showing no signs of success and the program in China is only at a very early stage of development."2

The latest setback was the decision of the Japanese government at an extraordinary Cabinet meeting on September 21 to abandon plans to restart the Monju fast breeder reactor.3 A formal announcement of the decision is likely to be made by the end of the year, government officials said.4 After the Cabinet meeting, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the government will set up an expert panel that will "carry out an overall revision of the Monju project, including its decommissioning" by the end of this year.3

Monju won't be missed. The Japan Times reported: "Monju not only absorbed fistfuls of taxpayer money, but also suffered repeated accidents and mismanagement while only going live for a few months during its three-decade existence."3

Likewise, the Mainichi Japan editorialized on June 6: "Many other rich industrialized nations have given up on fast-breeder reactor development because of its technical and cost hurdles. The fuel cycle project is effectively broken beyond repair. ... It's time for the government to decide, not on how Monju will continue, but on how it will be shut down for good."5

Monju reached criticality in 1994 but was shut down in December 1995 after a sodium coolant leak and fire. The reactor didn't restart until May 2010, and it was shut down again three months later after a fuel handling machine was accidentally dropped in the reactor during a refuelling outage. In November 2012, it was revealed that Japan Atomic Energy Agency had failed to conduct regular inspections of almost 10,000 out of a total 39,000 pieces of equipment at Monju, including safety-critical equipment.

In November 2015, the Nuclear Regulation Authority declared that the Japan Atomic Energy Agency was "not qualified as an entity to safely operate" Monju. Education minister Hirokazu Matsuno said on 21 September 2016 that attempts to find an alternative operator have been unsuccessful.3

On 15 August 2016, less than a week before the extraordinary Cabinet meeting, the Nuclear Regulation Authority rejected a request to lift a ban on operating Monju, imposed in 2013 after the revelation that safety inspections of thousands of components had not been carried out.6

The government has already spent 1.2 trillion yen (US$12bn; €10.8bn) on Monju.7 The government calculated that it would cost another 600 billion yen (US$6bn; €5.3bn) to restart Monju and keep it operating for another 10 years.7 Offline maintenance costs amount to around 20 billion yen a year (US$200m; €177m).4,7

Decommissioning also has a hefty price-tag ‒ far more than for conventional light-water reactors. According to a 2012 estimate by the Japan Atomic Energy Agency, decommissioning Monju will cost an estimated 300 billion yen (US$3bn; €2.7bn), comprising 130 billion yen to dismantle the facility, 20 billion yen to remove spent nuclear fuel, and 150 billion yen for maintenance and management costs such as electricity and labor.8

Reprocessing in Japan

Logically, the decision to scrap Monju should be followed by a decision to scrap the partially-built Rokkasho reprocessing plant. Providing plutonium fuel to Monju ‒ and, in time, other fast reactors ‒ was one of the main justifications for Rokkasho. Moreover, Japan already has an astronomical stockpile of 48 tonnes of separated plutonium from the reprocessing of Japanese spent fuel in European reprocessing plants. Rokkasho would result in an additional 8‒9 tonnes of separated plutonium annually.

But the government seems determined to proceed with Rokkasho, which is due to start up in 2018. The reprocessing plant's scheduled completion in 1997 has been delayed by more than 20 times due to a series of technical glitches and other problems, and its construction cost is now estimated at 2.2 trillion yen (US$22bn; €19.5bn) ‒ three times the original cost estimate.9

How to justify continuing with Rokkasho without a fast breeder program? The Japanese government says that it will continue research and development into fast breeder reactors. At the extraordinary Cabinet meeting on September 21, the government decided to commission a road map for developing "demonstration fast reactors" by the end of the year.3 One option is to attempt to restart the Joyo experimental fast reactor in Ibaraki Prefecture (shut down since 2007 due to damage to some core components ‒ the World Nuclear Association says its future is "uncertain"1), or Japan may pursue joint research with France (specifically, France's plans to develop a demonstration fast reactor called ASTRID).3,10

Operating a massive reprocessing plant in support of a small, experimental fast reactor program makes no sense, especially given the existing plutonium stockpile. Another rationale for Rokkasho ‒ separating plutonium to be incorporated into MOX fuel for light-water reactors ‒ is just as illogical. Only one operating reactor ‒ Ikata 3 in Ehime Prefecture ‒ uses MOX fuel.

Perhaps sense will prevail and Japan will abandon both fast reactors and reprocessing ‒ but that isn't seen as a likely outcome. Masafumi Takubo and Frank von Hippel noted in a recent article:11

"According to a 2011 estimate by Japan's Atomic Energy Commission, operating the RRP [Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant] will cost about ¥200 billion (~US$2 billion) per year to produce plutonium with a fuel value that is less than the cost of fabricating it into fuel. The economics of reprocessing in France are similarly irrational. One therefore needs to find other explanations than those stated for the persistence of reprocessing in France and Japan. Partial explanations include:

  • The thousands of jobs and government subsidies to local and regional governments associated with reprocessing and related facilities have become important to the rural areas where they are located;
  • Abandoning the pursuit of a plutonium economy would be seen by elite nuclear technocrats as an admission that they had wasted the equivalents of tens of billions of taxpayers' dollars;
  • Reprocessing is government policy and therefore not responsive to market economics; and
  • In Japan, some see its reprocessing capability as providing a virtual nuclear deterrent."

India's failed fast reactor program

India's fast reactor program has been a failure. The budget for the Fast Breeder Test Reactor (FBTR) was approved in 1971 but the reactor was delayed repeatedly, attaining first criticality in 1985. It took until 1997 for the FBTR to start supplying a small amount of electricity to the grid. The FBTR's operations have been marred by several accidents.12

Preliminary design work for a larger Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (PFBR) began in 1985, expenditures on the reactor began in 1987/88 and construction began in 2004 ‒ but the reactor still hasn't started up. Construction has taken more than twice the expected period.12 In July 2016, the Indian government announced yet another delay, and there is scepticism that the scheduled start-up in March 2017 will be realized. The PFBR's cost estimate has gone up by 62%.13

India's Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) has for decades projected the construction of hundreds of fast reactors ‒ for example a 2004 DAE document projected 262.5 gigawatts (GW) of fast reactor capacity by 2050. But India has a track record of making absurd projections for both fast reactors and light-water reactors ‒ and failing to meet those targets by orders of magnitude.12

Academic M.V. Ramana writes: "Breeder reactors have always underpinned the DAE's claims about generating large quantities of electricity. Today, more than six decades after the grand plans for growth were first announced, that promise is yet to be fulfilled. The latest announcement about the delay in the PFBR is yet another reminder that breeder reactors in India, like elsewhere, are best regarded as a failed technology and that it is time to give up on them."12

Russia's snail-paced program

Three fast reactors are in operation in Russia ‒ BOR-60 (start-up in 1969), BN-600 (1980) and BN-800 (2014).1 There have been 27 sodium leaks in the BN-600 reactor, five of them in systems with radioactive sodium, and 14 leaks were accompanied by burning of sodium.14

The Russian government published a decree in August 2016 outlining plans to build 11 new reactors over the next 14 years. Of the 11 proposed new reactors, three are fast reactors: BREST-300 near Tomsk in Siberia, and two BN-1200 fast reactors near Ekaterinburg and Chelyabinsk, near the Ural mountains.15 However, like India, the Russian government has a track record of projecting rapid and substantial nuclear power expansion ‒ and failing miserably to meet the targets.15

As Vladimir Slivyak recently noted in Nuclear Monitor: "While Russian plans looks big on paper, it's unlikely that this program will be implemented. It's very likely that the current economic crisis, the deepest in history since the USSR collapsed, will axe the most of new reactors."

While the August 2016 decree signals new interest in reviving the BN-1200 reactor project, it was indefinitely suspended in 2014, with Rosatom citing the need to improve fuel for the reactor and amid speculation about the cost-effectiveness of the project.16

In 2014, Rosenergoatom spokesperson Andrey Timonov said the BN-800 reactor, which started up in 2014, "must answer questions about the economic viability of potential fast reactors because at the moment 'fast' technology essentially loses this indicator [when compared with] commercial VVER units."16

Russian plans in the 1980's to construct five BN-800s in the Ural region failed to materialize and, as the International Panel on Fissile Materials noted last December, plans to scale up fast reactor deployment to 14 GW by 2030 and 34 GW by 2050 do not seem realistic.17

OKBM − the Rosatom subsidiary that designed the BN-1200 reactor − previously anticipated that the first BN-1200 reactor would be commissioned in 2020, followed by eight more by 2030.18 The projection of nine BN-1200 reactors operating by 2030 was fanciful, and the latest plan for three new fast reactors by 2030 will not be realized either.

The BREST-300 fast reactor project is stretching Rosatom's funds. Bellona's Alexander Nikitin said in 2014 that Rosatom's "Breakthrough" program to develop BREST-300 was only breaking Rosatom's piggy-bank.19

China's program going nowhere fast

Australian nuclear lobbyist Geoff Russell cites20 the World Nuclear Association (WNA)21 in support of his claim that the Chinese expect fast reactors "to be dominating the market by about 2030 and they'll be mass produced."

Does the WNA reference support the claim? Not at all. China has a 20 MWe experimental fast reactor, which operated for a total of less than one month in the 63 months from criticality in July 2010 to October 2015.21 For every hour the reactor operated in 2015, it was offline for five hours, and there were three recorded reactor trips.22

China also has plans to build a 600 MWe 'Demonstration Fast Reactor' and then a 1,000 MWe commercial-scale fast reactor.21 Whether the 600 MWe and 1,000 MWe reactors will be built remains uncertain ‒ the projects have not been approved ‒ and it would be another giant leap from a single commercial-scale fast reactor to a fleet of them.

According to the WNA, a decision to proceed with or cancel the 1,000 MW fast reactor will not be made until 2020, and if it proceeds, construction could begin in 2028 and operation could begin in about 2034.23

So China might have one commercial-scale fast reactor by 2034 ‒ but probably won't. Clearly Russell's claim that fast reactors will be "dominating the market by about 2030" is asinine hogwash.

According to the WNA, China envisages 40 GW of fast reactor capacity by 2050. A far more likely scenario is that China will have 0 GW of fast reactor capacity by 2050. And even if the 40 GW target was reached, it would still only represent around one-sixth of total nuclear capacity in China in 205023 ‒ fast reactors still wouldn't be "dominating the market" even if the fanciful projections are realized.

Perhaps the travelling-wave fast reactor popularized by Bill Gates will come to the rescue? Or perhaps not. According to the WNA, China General Nuclear Power and Xiamen University are reported to be cooperating on R&D, but the Ministry of Science and Technology, China National Nuclear Corporation, and the State Nuclear Power Technology Company are all skeptical of the travelling-wave reactor concept.23

Perhaps the 'integral fast reactor' (IFR) championed by James Hansen will come to the rescue? Or perhaps not. The UK and US governments have been considering building IFRs (specifically GE Hitachi's 'PRISM' design) for plutonium disposition ‒ but it is almost certain that both countries will choose different methods to manage plutonium stockpiles.24

In South Australia, nuclear lobbyists united behind a push for IFRs/PRISMs, and they would have expected to persuade a stridently pro-nuclear Royal Commission to endorse their ideas. But the Royal Commission completely rejected the proposal, noting in its May 2016 report that advanced fast reactors are unlikely to be feasible or viable in the foreseeable future; that the development of such a first-of-a-kind project would have high commercial and technical risk; that there is no licensed, commercially proven design and development to that point would require substantial capital investment; and that electricity generated from such reactors has not been demonstrated to be cost competitive with current light water reactor designs.25

A future for fast reactors?

Just 400 reactor-years of worldwide experience have been gained with fast reactors.1 There is 42 times more experience with conventional reactors (16,850 reactor-years26). And most of the experience with fast reactors suggests they are more trouble than they are worth.

Apart from the countries mentioned above, there is very little interest in pursuing fast reactor technology. Germany, the UK and the US cancelled their prototype breeder reactors in the 1980s and 1990s.27

France is considering building a fast reactor (ASTRID) despite the country's unhappy experience with the Phénix and Superphénix reactors. But a decision on whether to construct ASTRID will not be made until 2019/20.28,29

The performance of the Superphénix reactor was as dismal as Monju. Superphénix was meant to be the world's first commercial fast reactor but in the 13 years of its miserable existence it rarely operated ‒ its 'Energy Unavailability Factor' was 90.8% according to the IAEA.30

A 2010 article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists neatly summarized the worldwide failure of fast reactor technology:31

"After six decades and the expenditure of the equivalent of about $100 billion, the promise of breeder reactors remains largely unfulfilled. ... The breeder reactor dream is not dead, but it has receded far into the future. In the 1970s, breeder advocates were predicting that the world would have thousands of breeder reactors operating this decade. Today, they are predicting commercialization by approximately 2050. In the meantime, the world has to deal with the hundreds of tons of separated weapons-usable plutonium that are the legacy of the breeder dream and more being separated each year by Britain, France, India, Japan, and Russia.

"In 1956, U.S. Navy Admiral Hyman Rickover summarized his experience with a sodium cooled reactor that powered early U.S. nuclear submarines by saying that such reactors are "expensive to build, complex to operate, susceptible to prolonged shutdown as a result of even minor malfunctions, and difficult and time-consuming to repair." More than 50 years later, this summary remains apt."

Allison MacFarlane, former chair of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, recently made this sarcastic assessment of fast reactor technology: "These turn out to be very expensive technologies to build. Many countries have tried over and over. What is truly impressive is that these many governments continue to fund a demonstrably failed technology."32

While fast reactors face a bleak future, the rhetoric will persist. Australian academic Barry Brook wrote a puff-piece about fast reactors for the Murdoch press in 2009.33 On the same day he said on his website that "although it's not made abundantly clear in the article", he expects conventional reactors to play the major role for the next two to three decades but chose to emphasise fast reactors "to try to hook the fresh fish".

So that's the game plan for nuclear lobbyists − making overblown claims about fast reactors and other Generation IV reactor concepts, pretending that they are near-term prospects, and being less than "abundantly clear" about the truth.


1. World Nuclear Association, Sept 2016, 'Fast Neutron Reactors',

2. International Panel on Fissile Materials, 17 Feb 2010, 'History and status of fast breeder reactor programs worldwide',

3. Reiji Yoshida, 21 Sept 2016, 'Japan to scrap troubled ¥1 trillion Monju fast-breeder reactor',

4. Jack Loughran, 21 Sept 2016, 'Costly Japanese prototype nuclear reactor shuts down',

5. Mainichi Japan, 6 June 2016, 'Editorial: Time to permanently shut down Monju nuclear reactor',

6. 19 Aug 2016, 'Nuclear Regulators Keep Ban On Monju Reactor',

7. Mainichi Japan, 29 Aug 2016, 'Running Monju reactor for 10 years would cost gov't 600 billion yen extra',

8. Mainichi Japan, 16 Feb 2016, 'Decommissioning of troubled fast-breeder reactor Monju would cost 300 billion yen',

9. 4 Sept 2016, 'Monju and the nuclear fuel cycle',

10. 13 Sept 2016, 'Japan on verge of scrapping Monju fast-breeder reactor: sources',

11. Masafumi Takubo and Frank von Hippel, 1 Sept. 2016, 'Future of Japan's Monju plutonium breeder reactor under review',

12. M.V. Ramana, 16 Aug 2016, 'Fast breeder reactors and the slow progress of India's nuclear programme',
13. Mycle Schneider, Antony Froggatt et al., 2016, World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2016,

14. Vladimir Slivyak, December 2014, 'Russian Nuclear Industry Overview',

15. WNN, 10 Aug 2016, 'Russia to build 11 new nuclear reactors by 2030',

16. World Nuclear News, 16 April 2015, 'Russia postpones BN-1200 in order to improve fuel design',

17. Shaun Burnie, 15 Dec 2015, 'Russian BN-800 fast breeder reactor connected to grid',


19. Alexander Nikitin, 5 May 2015, 'In a perpetual search for perpetuum mobile',



22. Zhang Donghui / China Institute of Atomic Energy, 2016, 'Nuclear energy and Fast Reactor development in China',


24. Jim Green, 9 Sept 2015, 'Diminishing prospects for MOX and integral fast reactors', Nuclear Monitor #810,

25. Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission, Final Report, 2016,


27. Thomas B. Cochran et al., 2010, 'Fast Breeder Reactor Programs: History and Status',




31. Thomas Cochran et al., May/June 2010, 'It's time to give up on breeder reactors',

32. Stephen Stapczynski and Emi Urabe, 1 June 2016, 'Japan's Nuclear Holy Grail Slips Away With Operator Elusive',



Diminishing prospects for MOX and integral fast reactors

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Jim Green - Nuclear Monitor editor

A non-existent reactor type called the 'integral fast reactor' (IFR) has some prominent champions, including climate scientist James Hansen. Supporters are beguiled by the prospect of nuclear waste and weapons-usable material being used as fuel to generate low-carbon power − helping to address three problems at once.

The theoretical attractiveness fades away when the real-world history of fast reactors is considered: they have proven to be accident-prone, expensive white elephants, and they have contributed to weapons proliferation.

Both the US and the UK governments have been considering building IFRs. The primary purpose in both countries would be to provide a degree of proliferation resistance to stockpiles of separated plutonium. For Hansen and other IFR supporters, the significance of the US and UK proposals is that the construction of IFRs in those countries could kick-start a much greater worldwide deployment.

However, it seems increasingly unlikely that IFRs will be built in the US or the UK ... and no other country is seriously considering building them.

The latest report on US plutonium disposition options signals a shift away from using mixed uranium/plutonium (MOX) fuel in favor of disposal − and it didn't consider IFRs to be worthy of detailed consideration. The study − commissioned by the Department of Energy (DoE) and produced by a 'Red Team' of experts from US nuclear laboratories, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and the commercial nuclear power industry − was leaked to the Union of Concerned Scientists and has been posted on the UCS website.1,2

The plutonium in question is 34 metric tons of surplus plutonium from the US nuclear weapons program (with Russia having also agreed to remove the same amount of plutonium from its military stockpile). The partially built MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina has proven to be an expensive white elephant. The DoE Red Team report details the "difficult, downward spiraling circumstances" that have plagued the MOX program and contributed to the delays and massive cost overruns at the MOX facility.

The UCS notes that the estimated life-cycle cost of the MOX facility has ballooned from US$1.6 billion (€1.43b) to more than US$30 billion (€26.9b), and the DoE report notes that the cost of the MOX approach for plutonium disposition has "increased dramatically".

The World Nuclear Association has crunched the numbers: "Despite being 60% built, the MOX plant still needs some 15 years of construction work, said the leaked report, and then about three years of commissioning. Once in operation the plant would work through the plutonium over about 10 years with this 28-year program to cost $700-800 million per year − a total of $19.6−22.4 billion on top of what has already been spent."3

The DoE Red Team report states that it may not be possible to get sufficient reactors to use MOX fuel to make the approach viable − and that it may struggle get utilities to use MOX fuel even if it is given away for free (!) and even in markets where additional costs (e.g. licensing costs to enable the use of MOX fuel) can be passed directly on to consumers.

The DoE Red Team report promotes a 'Dilute and Dispose' option − downblending or diluting plutonium with adulterating material and then disposing of it. The DoE has already used that method to dispose of several tons of plutonium. DoE proposes disposal of the 34 metric tons of downblended plutonium in the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico.

WIPP would also be required if the MOX approach is pursued. WIPP has been closed since a February 2014 underground chemical explosion but the Red Team anticipates that it will re-open in the coming years and could be available for downblended waste (or MOX waste).

Don Hancock from the Albuquerque-based Southwest Information and Research Center opposes the MOX project but is sceptical about disposal at WIPP, saying the DoE should review other options including storing the plutonium at the Savannah River Site or the Pantex Plant near Amarillo, Texas, where thousands of plutonium pits are already warehoused. Hancock said: "The Red Team or the Union of Concerned Scientists may be confident that WIPP will reopen in a few years, but I don't see any real basis for that. Going from one bad idea to another bad idea is not the solution to this problem."4

Integral fast reactors

IFRs − also called PRISM or Advanced Disposition Reactors (ADR) − have been considered for plutonium disposition in the US. The ADR concept is similar to General Electric Hitachi's PRISM according to the DoE.

Last year a DoE Working Group concluded that the ADR approach would be more than twice as expensive as all the other options under consideration for plutonium disposition; that it would take 18 years to construct an ADR and associated facilities; and that the ADR option is associated with "significant technical risk".5

The 2014 DoE Working Group report stated:

"Irradiation of plutonium fuel in fast reactors ... faces two major technical challenges: the first involves the design, construction, start-up, and licensing of a multi-billion dollar prototype modular, pool-type advanced fast-spectrum burner reactor; and the second involves the design and construction of the metal fuel fabrication in an existing facility. As with any initial design and construction of a first-of-a-kind prototype, significant challenges are endemic to the endeavor, however DoE has thirty years of experience with metal fuel fabrication and irradiation. The metal fuel fabrication facility challenges include: scale-up of the metal fuel fabrication process that has been operated only at a pilot scale, and performing modifications to an existing, aging, secure facility ... Potential new problems also may arise during the engineering and procurement of the fuel fabrication process to meet NRC's stringent Quality Assurance requirements for Nuclear Power Plants and Fuel Reprocessing Plants."

In short, the ADR option is associated with "significant technical risk" according to the 2014 DoE report, and metal fuel fabrication faces "significant technical challenges" and has only been operated at the pilot scale.

If the August 2015 DoE Red Team report is any guide, the IFR/ADR option is dead and buried in the US. The Red Team didn't even consider IFR/ADR worthy of detailed consideration:1

"The ADR option involves a capital investment similar in magnitude to the MFFF [Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility] but with all of the risks associated with first of-a kind new reactor construction (e.g., liquid metal fast reactor), and this complex nuclear facility construction has not even been proposed yet for a Critical Decision (CD)-0. Choosing the ADR option would be akin to choosing to do the MOX approach all over again, but without a directly relevant and easily accessible reference facility/operation (such as exists for MOX in France) to provide a leg up on experience and design. Consequently, the remainder of this Red Team report focuses exclusively on the MOX approach and the Dilute and Dispose option, and enhancements thereof."

The DoE Red Team report states that the IFR/ADR option has "large uncertainties in siting, licensing, cost, technology demonstration, and other factors". It states that the IFR/ADR option "could become more viable in the future" if fast reactors were to become part of the overall U.S. nuclear energy strategy.

IFR/PRISM/ADR advocates argued in 2011 that the first PRISM could be built in the US by 2016.6 However the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission has yet to receive a licensing submission from General Electric Hitachi and there are no concrete plans for PRISMs in the US let alone any concrete pours.

IFRs in the UK?

The UK government is also considering building IFRs for plutonium disposition. Specifically, General Electric Hitachi (GEH) is promoting 'Power Reactor Innovative Small Module' (PRISM) fast reactors.7

The UK Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) released a position paper in January 2014 outlining potential options for future management of separated plutonium stockpiles.8 The NDA report stated that reuse in Candu reactors "remains a credible option", that MOX is a "credible and technically mature option", while PRISM "should also be considered credible, although further investigation may change this view."

The NDA report stated that the facilities required by the PRISM approach have not been industrially demonstrated, so further development work needs to be undertaken with the cost and time to complete this work yet to be defined in detail. GEH estimates that licensing these first of a kind PRISM reactors would take around six years. GEH envisages first irradiation (following development, licensing and construction) in 14−18 years but the NDA considers that timeframe "ambitious considering delivery performance norms currently seen in the UK and European nuclear landscape".

As in the US, the likelihood of IFR/ADR/PRISM reactors being built in the UK seems to be diminishing. An August 2015 report states that the Canadian Candu option seems to be emerging as a favorite for plutonium disposition in the UK, and that GEH is 'hedging its bets' by working with Candu Energy to develop the Candu approach.9,10


1. Thom Mason et al., 13 August 2015, 'Final Report of the Plutonium Disposition Red Team', for the US Department of Energy,

2. UCS, 20 Aug 2015, 'DOE Study Concludes MOX Facility More Expensive, Much Riskier than Disposing of Surplus Plutonium at New Mexico Repository',

3. World Nuclear News, 21 Aug 2015, 'Disposal beats MOX in US comparison',

4. Patrick Malone and Douglas Birch, 22 Aug 2015, Sante Fe New Mexican,

5. US Department of Energy, April 2014, 'Report of the Plutonium Disposition Working Group: Analysis of Surplus Weapon Grade Plutonium Disposition Options',

6. 'Disposal of UK plutonium stocks with a climate change focus',


8. UK Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, Jan 2014, 'Progress on approaches to the management of separated plutonium – Position Paper',

9. Newswire 29th June 2015

10. August 2015, 'Slow Progress on Plutonium Stockpiles', nuClear news No.76,