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, www.ucsusa.org/sites/default/files/attach/2015/08/final-pu-disposition-r...
2. UCS, 20 Aug 2015, 'DOE Study Concludes MOX Facility More Expensive, Much Riskier than Disposing of Surplus Plutonium at New Mexico Repository', www.ucsusa.org/new/press_release/doe-mox-study-0521
3. World Nuclear News, 21 Aug 2015, 'Disposal beats MOX in US comparison', www.world-nuclear-news.org/WR-Disposal-beats-MOX-in-US-comparison-210815...
4. Patrick Malone and Douglas Birch, 22 Aug 2015, Sante Fe New Mexican, www.santafenewmexican.com/news/local_news/report-pressures-congress-to-k...
5. US Department of Energy, April 2014, 'Report of the Plutonium Disposition Working Group: Analysis of Surplus Weapon Grade Plutonium Disposition Options', www.nnsa.energy.gov/sites/default/files/nnsa/04-14-inlinefiles/SurplusPu...
6. 'Disposal of UK plutonium stocks with a climate change focus', http://bravenewclimate.com/2011/06/04/uk-pu-cc/
8. UK Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, Jan 2014, 'Progress on approaches to the management of separated plutonium – Position Paper', www.nda.gov.uk/publication/progress-on-approaches-to-the-management-of-s...
9. Newswire 29th June 2015 http://www.newswire.ca/en/story/1563539/ge-hitachi-nuclear-energy-canada...
10. August 2015, 'Slow Progress on Plutonium Stockpiles', nuClear news No.76, www.no2nuclearpower.org.uk/nuclearnews/NuClearNewsNo76.pdf