Integral Fast Reactors: Nuclear’s Forgotten Clean Energy Solution

I wrote a post for CleanTechnica on December 6, 2011 concerning something I’d never before heard about, integral fast reactors — you guessed right, nuclear reactors. Titled, “Our Nuclear Trash Heap Needs IFRs,” I wrote about a 2008 book by environmentalist, Tom Blees, “Prescription for the Planet.”

PRISM reactor power block used to produce electricity from spent nuclear fuel
PRISM reactor power block used to produce electricity from spent nuclear fuel

When I posted this story, I was soundly chastised and called a “nuclearist” by more than a few, while tallying support from some who know far more about nuclear energy and safe reactions than I do.

Because knowledge is so very important, I believe it is time to repost parts of this article now so all readers might understand the daunting nature of  our global energy demands, the effects of climate change, and the terrifying amount of radioactive waste that happens to be lying around on the soil of our planet, or far below the surface.

Let me start with this: Renewable and sustainable energy solutions should be championed by all whenever the occasion presents itself. But clean solutions like these fall far short of addressing planetary needs. During 2012 renewable energy from wind and solar accounted for 13.2 percent of U.S electricity supplies (we still don’t have comprehensive accounting for what happens to solar energy when the sun isn’t shining, or wind turbines when the wind isn’t blowing.)

Unfortunately the renewable energy solution as it stands today is a far, far distance from taking the driver’s seat among energy suppliers. And that’s just in the United States. These numbers drop precipitously when calculating a world-scale supply chain. Which leads us back to a robust global marketplace that steadfastly supports a deluge of more fossil fuels to sate demand and satisfy the pocketbook — this and climate change are cankerous problems that still aren’t being correctly addressed. Even the most naive already suspect our fossil fuel addiction has a key responsibility in stoking the fires of global climate change. What other options, then exist?  Integral fast reactors should be added to this list.

We need to understand all options on the table or planetary energy, including nuclear. Below was an abbreviated gist of that article:

Argonne National Lab
Argonne National Lab

Guardian columnist George Monbiot and  his column – A Waste of Waste  – is a document that should be read by all persons with an interest in our planet’s energy requirements, regardless of their position on nuclear energy following the ongoing problems taking place at Japan’s Fukoshima nuclear facility.

Monbiot, an environmental crusader, has asked an important question regarding our management of  nuclear waste: “Why bury nuclear waste, when it could meet the world’s energy needs?”

He cites the important, must-read 2008 book by environmentalist Tom Blees, “Prescription for the Planet  where he presents information from studies from scientists about the remarkable, yet untapped potential of integral fast reactors (short form – IFRs) that were developed at the Argonne National Laboratory between 1984 and 1994 before being shut down and dismantled under U.S. Congressional order.

A huge problem for the people of this planet: The enormous amount of waste generated from the manufacture of nuclear weapons. 

Blees obtained information from scientists who worked on the Integral Fast Reactor Project, arguing there are nuclear power stations which can run on what old nuclear plants have left behind. Conventional nuclear power uses just 0.6% of the energy contained in the uranium that fuels it. Integral fast reactors can use almost all the rest.

Blees says our global nuclear waste — all of that stuff we don’t know how to safely throw away — can meet the world’s energy needs for several hundred years, with little in the way of carbon emissions. (See Blees’ insightful 27-minute interview on You Tube.)

Science claim on IFRs: IFRs need to be loaded with fissile material (uranium-233, uranium-235, and plutonium-239) only once, after which they can keep recycling ever more of its energy, until a small fraction of the waste remains.

Renewable energy can and should be a dynamic part of this world’s sustainable energy solutions. It is unable to scale up to the demand for electricity anywhere near fast enough. In an interview, Blees refers to a Scientific American study regarding meeting our electrical demand with solar energy which surmised we needed 39,000 square miles of solar panels just to meet 69 percent of electrical demand in the United States.

Monbiot concludes with this sobering, but accurate perspective: “So we environmentalists have a choice. We can’t wish the waste away. Either it is stored and then buried. Or it is turned into mox fuels. Or it is used to power IFRs.”

A growing number of people need to study and share this concern.

Recent articles for those wanting to learn:

Photos: Science Council for Global Initiatives, Argonne National Lab

About the Author

Writer, documentary producer, and director. Meyers is a contributor to CleanTechnica, and founder of Green Streets MediaTrain, a communications connection and eLearning hub. As an independent producer, he's been involved in the development, production and distribution of television and distance learning programs for both the education industry and corporate sector. He also is an avid gardener and loves sustainable innovation.