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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',

An open letter to nuclear lobbyists in response to their open letter to environmentalists

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Jim Green − Nuclear Monitor editor

A group of conservation scientists has published an open letter urging environmentalists to reconsider their opposition to nuclear power.1 The letter is an initiative of Australian academics Barry Brook and Corey Bradshaw, and has been endorsed by 69 (other) scientists from Australia, Canada, China, Finland, France, India, Indonesia, Italy, Norway, Singapore, South Africa, Switzerland, the UK, and the US.

The co-signatories "support the broad conclusions drawn in the article 'Key role for nuclear energy in global biodiversity conservation', published in Conservation Biology."2 The open letter states: "Brook and Bradshaw argue that the full gamut of electricity-generation sources − including nuclear power − must be deployed to replace the burning of fossil fuels, if we are to have any chance of mitigating severe climate change."

So, here's my open letter in response to the open letter initiated by Brook and Bradshaw:

Dear conservation scientists,

Space constraints prohibit the usual niceties that accompany open letters so I'll get straight to the point. If you want environmentalists to support nuclear power, get off your backsides and do something about the all-too-obvious problems associated with the technology. Start with the proliferation problem since the multifaceted and repeatedly-demonstrated links between the 'peaceful atom' and nuclear weapons proliferation pose profound risks and greatly trouble environmentalists and many others besides.3

The Brook/Bradshaw journal article (rightly) emphasises the importance of biodiversity − but even a relatively modest exchange of some dozens of nuclear weapons could profoundly effect biodiversity, and large-scale nuclear warfare undoubtedly would.4

As Australian scientist Dr Mark Diesendorf notes: "On top of the perennial challenges of global poverty and injustice, the two biggest threats facing human civilisation in the 21st century are climate change and nuclear war. It would be absurd to respond to one by increasing the risks of the other. Yet that is what nuclear power does."5

The Brook/Bradshaw article ranks power sources according to seven criteria: greenhouse gas emissions, cost, dispatchability, land use, safety (fatalities), solid waste, and radiotoxic waste. WMD proliferation is excluded. By all means ignore lesser concerns to avoid a book-length analysis, but to ignore the link between nuclear power and weapons is disingenuous and the comparative analysis of power sources is a case of rubbish in, rubbish out.

Integral fast reactors

While Brook and Bradshaw exclude WMD proliferation from their comparative assessment of power sources, their journal article does address the topic. They promote the 'integral fast reactor' (IFR) that was the subject of R&D in the US until was abandoned in the 1990s.6 If they existed, IFRs would be metal-fuelled, sodium-cooled, fast neutron reactors.

Brook and Bradshaw write: "The IFR technology in particular also counters one of the principal concerns regarding nuclear expansion − the proliferation of nuclear weapons − because its electrorefining-based fuel-recycling system cannot separate weapons-grade fissile material."

But Brook's claim that IFRs "cannot be used to generate weapons-grade material"7 is false.8 IFR advocate Tom Blees notes that: "IFRs are certainly not the panacea that removes all threat of proliferation, and extracting plutonium from it would require the same sort of techniques as extracting it from spent fuel from light water reactors."9 George Stanford, who worked on an IFR research program in the US, states: "If not properly safeguarded, [countries] could do [with IFRs] what they could do with any other reactor – operate it on a special cycle to produce good quality weapons material."10

The presentation of IFRs by Brook and Bradshaw contrasts sharply with the sober assessments of the UK and US governments. An April 2014 US government report notes that pursuit of IFR technology would be associated with "significant technical risk" and that it would take 18 years to construct an IFR and associated facilities.11 A recent UK government report notes that IFR facilities have not been industrially demonstrated, waste disposal issues remain unresolved, and little can be ascertained about cost.12

Brook and Bradshaw argue that "the large-scale deployment of fast reactor technology would result in all of the nuclear-waste and depleted-uranium stockpiles generated over the last 50 years being consumed as fuel." Seriously? An infinitely more likely outcome would be some fast reactors consuming waste and weapons-useable material while other fast reactors and conventional uranium reactors continue to produce such materials.

The Brook/Bradshaw article ignores the sad reality of fast reactor technology: over US$50 billion (€40.2b) invested, unreliable reactors, numerous fires and other accidents, and one after another country abandoning the technology.13

Moreover, fast reactors have worsened, not lessened, proliferation problems. John Carlson, former Director-General of the Australian Safeguards and Non-proliferation Office, discusses a topical example: "India has a plan to produce such [weapon grade] plutonium in fast breeder reactors for use as driver fuel in thorium reactors. This is problematic on non-proliferation and nuclear security grounds. Pakistan believes the real purpose of the fast breeder program is to produce plutonium for weapons (so this plan raises tensions between the two countries); and transport and use of weapons-grade plutonium in civil reactors presents a serious terrorism risk (weapons-grade material would be a priority target for seizure by terrorists)."14

The fast reactor techno-utopia presented by Brook and Bradshaw is attractive. Back in the real world, there's much more about fast reactors to oppose than to support. And the large-scale deployment of Generation IV reactor technology is further away than they care to admit. The Generation IV International Forum website states: "It will take at least two or three decades before the deployment of commercial Gen IV systems. In the meantime, a number of prototypes will need to be built and operated. The Gen IV concepts currently under investigation are not all on the same timeline and some might not even reach the stage of commercial exploitation."15

Creative accounting and jiggery-pokery

Brook and Bradshaw also counter proliferation concerns with the following argument: "Nuclear power is deployed commercially in countries whose joint energy intensity is such that they collectively constitute 80% of global greenhouse-gas emissions. If one adds to this tally those nations that are actively planning nuclear deployment or already have scientific or medical research reactors, this figure rises to over 90%. As a consequence, displacement of fossil fuels by an expanding nuclear-energy sector would not lead to a large increase in the number of countries with access to nuclear resources and expertise."

The premise is correct − countries operating reactors account for a large majority of greenhouse emissions. But even by the most expansive estimate − Brook's16 − less than one-third of all countries have some sort of weapons capability, either through the operation of reactors or an alliance with a nuclear weapons state. So the conclusion − that nuclear power expansion "would not lead to a large increase in the number of countries with access to nuclear resources and expertise" − is nonsense and one wonders how such jiggery-pokery could find its way into a peer-reviewed journal.

The power−weapons conundrum is neatly summarised by former US Vice-President Al Gore: "For eight years in the White House, every weapons-proliferation problem we dealt with was connected to a civilian reactor program. And if we ever got to the point where we wanted to use nuclear reactors to back out a lot of coal ... then we'd have to put them in so many places we'd run that proliferation risk right off the reasonability scale."17


Apart from the their misinformation about IFRs, and their nonsense argument about the proliferation implications of expanding nuclear power, Brook and Bradshaw add one further comment about proliferation: "Nuclear weapons proliferation is a complex political issue, with or without commercial nuclear power plants, and is under strong international oversight."

Oddly, Brook and Bradshaw cite a book by IFR advocate Tom Blees in support of that statement.18 But Blees argues for the establishment of an international strike force on full standby to attend promptly to any detected attempts to misuse or to divert nuclear materials (p.269). That is a far cry from the International Atomic Energy Agency's safeguards system. In articles and speeches during his tenure as the Director General of the IAEA from 1997−2009, Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei said that the Agency's basic rights of inspection are "fairly limited", that the safeguards system suffers from "vulnerabilities" and "clearly needs reinforcement", that efforts to improve the system have been "half-hearted", and that the safeguards system operates on a "shoestring budget ... comparable to that of a local police department".

Moreover, Blees argues that: "Privatized nuclear power should be outlawed worldwide, with complete international control of not only the entire fuel cycle but also the engineering, construction, and operation of all nuclear power plants. Only in this way will safety and proliferation issues be satisfactorily dealt with. Anything short of that opens up a Pandora's box of inevitable problems." (p.303)

Blees doesn't argue that the nuclear industry is subject to strong international oversight − he argues that "fissile material should all be subject to rigorous international oversight" (emphasis added).19

Of course, the flaws in the nuclear safeguards system are not set in stone.20 And this gets me back to my original point: if nuclear lobbyists want environmentalists to support nuclear power, they need to get off their backsides and do something about the all-too-obvious problems such as the inadequate safeguards system. Environmentalists have a long record of working on these problems and the lack of support from nuclear lobbyists has not gone unnoticed.

To give an example of a topical point of intervention, Canada has agreed to supply uranium and nuclear technology to India with greatly reduced safeguards and non-proliferation standards, Australia seems likely to follow suit, and those precedents will likely lead to a broader weakening of international safeguards (and make it that much more difficult for nuclear lobbyists to win support from environmentalists and others). The seriousness of the problem has been acknowledged by, among others, a former Chair of the IAEA Board of Governors21 and a former Director-General of the Australian Safeguards and Non-proliferation Office.14 It is a live debate in numerous nuclear exporting countries and there isn't a moment to lose.

Nuclear lobbyists should join environmentalists in campaigning for a strengthening of the safeguards system and against efforts to weaken the system. But Brook and Bradshaw have never made even the slightest contribution to efforts to strengthen safeguards, and it's a safe bet that the same could be said of the other signatories to their open letter.

To mention just one more point of intervention, the separation and stockpiling of plutonium from power reactor spent fuel increases proliferation risks. There is virtually no demand for the uranium or plutonium separated at reprocessing plants, and no repositories for the high-level waste stream. Yet reprocessing continues, the global stockpile of separated plutonium increases year after year and now stands at around 260 tons.22 It's a problem that needs to be solved; it's a problem that can be solved.

Endorsing the wishful thinking and misinformation presented in the Brook/Bradshaw journal article is no substitute for an honest acknowledgement of the proliferation problems associated with nuclear power, coupled with serious, sustained efforts to solve those problems.


1. 15 Dec 2014, 'An Open Letter to Environmentalists on Nuclear Energy',
2. Brook, B. W., and C. J. A. Bradshaw. 2014. Key role for nuclear energy in global biodiversity conservation. Conservation Biology.
5. Dr Mark Diesendorf, University of NSW, 'Need energy? Forget nuclear and go natural', 14 Oct 2009,
7. Barry Brook, 9 June 2009, 'Nuking green myths', The Australian,
11. US Department of Energy, April 2014, 'Report of the Plutonium Disposition Working Group: Analysis of Surplus  Weapon‐Grade Plutonium Disposition Options',
See also 'Generation IV reactor R&D',
12. UK Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, January 2014, 'Progress on approaches to the management of separated plutonium – Position Paper',
See also: 'Will PRISM solve the UK's plutonium problem?',
13. International Panel on Fissile Materials, 2010, 'Fast Breeder Reactor Programs: History and Status',
17. David Roberts, 10 May 2006, 'An interview with accidental movie star Al Gore',
18. Blees T. 2008. 'Prescription for the planet: the painless remedy for our energy & environmental crises'. BookSurge, Charleston, South Carolina.
22. Fissile Materials Working Group, 6 May 2013, 'How do you solve a problem like plutonium?',

New reactor types are pie in the sky

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Jim Green

There's an Alice in Wonderland flavour to the nuclear power debate with lobbyists promoting all sorts of non-existent reactor types − an implicit acknowledgement that conventional uranium-fuelled reactors aren't all they're cracked up to be. Some favour non-existent Integral Fast Reactors, others favour non-existent Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors, others favour non-existent Pebble Bed Modular Reactors, others favour non-existent fusion reactors, and on it goes.

Two to three decades ago, the nuclear industry promised a new generation of gee-whiz 'Generation IV' reactors in two to three decades. That's what they're still saying now, and that's what they'll be saying two to three decades from now. The Generation IV International Forum website states: "It will take at least two or three decades before the deployment of commercial Gen IV systems. In the meantime, a number of prototypes will need to be built and operated. The Gen IV concepts currently under investigation are not all on the same timeline and some might not even reach the stage of commercial exploitation."1

Likewise, the World Nuclear Association notes that "progress is seen as slow, and several potential designs have been undergoing evaluation on paper for many years."2

Integral Fast Reactors ... it gets ugly moving from blueprint to backyard

Integral Fast Reactors (IFRs) are a case in point. According to the lobbyists they are ready to roll, will be cheap to build and operate, couldn't be used to feed WMD proliferation, etc. The US and UK governments have been analysing the potential of IFRs. The UK government found that the facilities have not been industrially demonstrated; waste disposal issues remain unresolved and could be further complicated if it is deemed necessary to remove sodium from spent fuel to facilitate disposal; and little could be ascertained about cost since General Electric Hitachi refuses to release estimates of capital and operating costs, saying they are "commercially sensitive".3

The US government has considered the use of IFRs (which it calls Advanced Disposition Reactors − ADR) to manage US plutonium stockpiles and concluded that the ADR approach would be more than twice as expensive as all the other options under consideration; that it would take 18 years to construct an ADR and associated facilities; and that the ADR option is associated with "significant technical risk".4

Unsurprisingly, the IFR rhetoric doesn't match the sober assessments of the UK and US governments. As nuclear engineer Dave Lochbaum from the Union of Concerned Scientists puts it: "The IFR looks good on paper. So good, in fact, that we should leave it on paper. For it only gets ugly in moving from blueprint to backyard."

No-one has cracked fusion yet

Lockheed Martin recently claimed that it "is working on a new compact fusion reactor (CFR) that can be developed and deployed in as little as ten years." Lockheed "anticipates being able to produce a prototype in five years" − which is very different from saying that it will actually build a prototype in five years. According to Lockheed's Tom McGuire, "The smaller size will allow us to design, build and test the CFR in less than a year."5

Matthew Hole, an academic and Australia's representative on the IAEA International Fusion Research Council, wrote in an October 7 article6:

"Aerospace giant Lockheed Martin's announcement this week that it could make small-scale nuclear fusion power a reality in the next decade has understandably generated excitement in the media. Physicists, however, aren't getting their hopes up just yet. ...

"Lockheed Martin claims that its technology development offshoot, Skunk Works, is working on a new compact fusion reactor that can be developed and deployed in as little as ten years. The only technical details it provided are that it is a "high beta" device (meaning that it produces a high plasma pressure for a relatively weak magnetic field pressure), and that it is sufficiently small to be able to power flight and vehicles.

"This isn't enough information to substantiate a credible program of research into the development of fusion power, or a credible claim for the delivery of a revolutionary power source in the next decade. ... Lockheed Martin will need to show a lot more research evidence that it can do better than multinational collaborative projects like ITER. So far, its lack of willingness to engage with the scientific community suggests that it may be more interested in media attention than scientific development."

The World Nuclear Association (WNA) has also thrown cold water on Lockheed's claims."7 The 'compact fusion reactor' concept remains "undemonstrated", the WNA notes. Moreover, Lockheed has itself acknowledged that it is "searching for partners" to help advance the technology.

Small Modular Reactors ... a new occupant in the graveyard of the 'nuclear renaissance'

The Energy Green Paper recently released by the Australian government is typical of the small-is-beautiful rhetoric: "The main development in technology since 2006 has been further work on Small Modular Reactors (SMRs). SMRs have the potential to be flexibly deployed, as they are a simpler 'plug-in' technology that does not require the same level of operating skills and access to water as traditional, large reactors."8

The rhetoric doesn't match reality. Interest in SMRs is on the wane. Thus Thomas W. Overton, associate editor of POWER magazine, wrote in a recent article: "At the graveyard wherein resides the "nuclear renaissance" of the 2000s, a new occupant appears to be moving in: the small modular reactor (SMR). ... Over the past year, the SMR industry has been bumping up against an uncomfortable and not-entirely-unpredictable problem: It appears that no one actually wants to buy one."9

Dr Mark Cooper, Senior Fellow for Economic Analysis at the Institute for Energy and the Environment, Vermont Law School, notes that two US corporations are pulling out of SMR development because they cannot find customers (Westinghouse) or major investors (Babcock and Wilcox). Cooper points to some economic constraints: "SMR technology will suffer disproportionately from material cost increases because they use more material per MW of capacity. Higher costs will result from: lost economies of scale; higher operating costs; and higher decommissioning costs. Cost estimates that assume quick design approval and deployment are certain to prove to be wildly optimistic."10

Westinghouse CEO Danny Roderick said in January: "The problem I have with SMRs is not the technology, it's not the deployment − it's that there's no customers."11 Westinghouse is looking to triple its decommissioning business. "We see this as a $1 billion-per-year business for us," Roderick said. With the world's fleet of mostly middle-aged reactors inexorably becoming a fleet of mostly ageing, decrepit reactors, Westinghouse is getting ahead of the game.

Academics M.V. Ramana and Zia Mian state in their detailed analysis of SMRs: "Proponents of the development and large scale deployment of small modular reactors suggest that this approach to nuclear power technology and fuel cycles can resolve the four key problems facing nuclear power today: costs, safety, waste, and proliferation. Nuclear developers and vendors seek to encode as many if not all of these priorities into the designs of their specific nuclear reactor. The technical reality, however, is that each of these priorities can drive the requirements on the reactor design in different, sometimes opposing, directions. Of the different major SMR designs under development, it seems none meets all four of these challenges simultaneously. In most, if not all designs, it is likely that addressing one of the four problems will involve choices that make one or more of the other problems worse."12

Likewise, Kennette Benedict, Executive Director of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, states: "Small modular nuclear reactors may be attractive, but they will not, in themselves, offer satisfactory solutions to the most pressing problems of nuclear energy: high cost, safety, and weapons proliferation."13

Some SMR R&D work continues but it all seems to be leading to the conclusions mentioned above. Argentina is ahead of the rest, with construction underway on a 27 MWe reactor − but the cost equates to an astronomical US$15.2 billion (€12b) per 1000 MWe.14 And that cost would be greater still if not for Argentina's expertise and experience with reactor construction − a legacy of its covert weapons program from the 1960s to the early 1980s.

So work continues on SMRs but the writing's on the wall and it's time for the nuclear lobby to come up with another gee-whiz next-gen fail-safe reactor type to promote − perhaps a giant fusion reactor located out of harm's way, 150 million kilometres from Earth.

6. Matthew Hole, 7 Oct 2014, 'Don't get too excited, no one has cracked nuclear fusion yet',
7. WNA, 16 Oct 2014, 'Big dreams for compact fusion reactor',

“New” nuclear reactors, same old story

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Amory Lovins

The dominant type of new nuclear power plant, light-water reactors (LWRs), proved impossible to finance in the robust 2005–08 capital market, despite new U.S. subsidies approaching or exceeding their total construction cost. New LWRs are now so costly and slow that they save 2–20 times less carbon, approximately 20–40 times slower, than micro power and efficient end-use.

As this becomes evident, other kinds of reactors are being proposed instead ­novel designs claimed to solve LWRs’ problems of economics, proliferation, and waste. Even climate-protection pioneer Jim Hansen says these “Generation IV” reactors merit rapid R&D. But on closer examination, the two kinds most often promoted ­Integral Fast Reactors (IFRs) and thorium reactors­ reveal no economic, environmental, or security rationale, and the thesis is unsound for any nuclear reactor.

Integrated Fast Reactors (IFRs)
The IFR ­a pool-type, liquid-sodium cooled fast-neutron reactor plus an ambitious new nuclear fuel cycle­ was abandoned in 1994, and General Electric’s S-PRISM design in 2003, due to both proliferation concerns and dismal economics. Federal funding for fast breeder reactors halted in 1983, but in the past few years, enthusiasts got renewed Bush Administration support by portraying the IFR as a solution to proliferation and nuclear waste. It’s neither.

Fast reactors were first offered as a way to make more plutonium to augment and ultimately replace scarce uranium. Now that uranium and enrichment are known to get cheaper while reprocessing, cleanup, and nonproliferation get costlier ­destroying the economic rationale­ IFRs have been reframed as a way to destroy the plutonium (and similar transuranic elements) in long-lived radioactive waste. Two or three redesigned IFRs could in principle fission the plutonium produced by each four LWRs without making more net plutonium. However, most LWRs will have retired before even one commercial-size IFR could be built; LWRs won’t be replaced with more LWRs because they’re grossly uncompetitive; and IFRs with their fuel cycle would cost even more and probably be less reliable. It’s feasible today to “burn” plutonium in LWRs, but this isn’t done much because it’s very costly, makes each kg of spent fuel 7x hotter, enhances risks, and makes certain transuranic isotopes that complicate operation. IFRs could do the same thing with similar or greater problems, offering no advantage over LWRs in proliferation resistance, cost, or environment.

IFRs’ reprocessing plant, lately reframed a “recycling center,” would be built at or near the reactors, coupling them so neither works without the other. Its novel technology, replacing solvents and aqueous chemistry with high-temperature pyrometallurgy and electro refining, would incur different but major challenges, greater technical risks and repair problems, and speculative but probably worse economics. (Argonne National Laboratory, the world’s experts on it, contracted to pyroprocess spent fuel from the EBRII ­ a small IFR-like test reactor shut down in 1994 ­ by 2035, at a cost DOE estimated in 2006 at approximately 50× today’s cost of fresh LWR fuel.)

Reprocessing of any kind makes waste management more difficult and complex, increases the volume and diversity of waste streams, increases by several -to manifold the cost of nuclear fueling, and separates bomb-usable material that can’t be adequately measured or protected. Mainly for this last reason, all U.S. Presidents since Gerald Ford in 1976 (except G.W. Bush in 2006– 08) discouraged it. An IFR/pyroprocessing system would give any country immediate access to over a thousand bombs’ worth of plutonium to fuel it, facilities to recover that plutonium, and experts to separate and fabricate it into bomb cores ­hardly a path to a safer world.

IFRs might in principle offer some safety advantages over today’s light-water reactors, but create different safety concerns, including the sodium coolant’s chemical reactivity and radioactivity. Over the past half century, the world’s leading nuclear technologists have built about three dozen sodium-cooled fast reactors, 11 of them Naval. Of the 22 whose histories are mostly reported, over half had sodium leaks, four suffered fuel damage (including two partial meltdowns), several others had serious accidents, most were prematurely closed, and only six succeeded. Admiral Rickover canceled sodium-cooled propulsion for USS Seawolf in 1956 as “expensive to build, complex to operate, susceptible to prolonged shutdown as a result of even minor malfunctions, and difficult and time-consuming to repair.” Little has changed. As Dr. Tom Cochran of NRDC notes, fast reactor programs were tried in the US, UK, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the USSR, and the US and Soviet Navies. All failed. After a half-century and tens of billions of dollars, the world has one operational commercial-sized fast reactor (Russia’s BN600) out of 438 commercial power reactors, and it’s not fueled with plutonium.

IFRs are often claimed to “burn up nuclear waste” and make its “time of concern . . . less than 500 years” rather than 10,000–100,000 years or more. That’s wrong: most of the radioactivity comes from fission products, including very-long-lived isotopes like iodine-129 and technicium-99, and their mix is broadly similar in any nuclear fuel cycle. IFRs’ wastes may contain less transuranic s, but at prohibitive cost and with worse occupational exposures, routine releases, accident and terrorism risks, proliferation, and disposal needs for intermediate- and low-level wastes. It’s simply a dishonest fantasy to claim that such hypothetical and uneconomic ways to recover energy or other value from spent LWR fuel mean “There is no such thing as nuclear waste.” Of course, the nuclear industry wishes this were true.

No new kind of reactor is likely to be much, if at all, cheaper than today’s LWRs, which remain grossly uncompetitive and are getting more so despite five decades of maturation. “New reactors” are precisely the “paper reactors” Admiral Rickover described in 1953:

An academic reactor or reactor plant almost always has the following basic characteristics: (1) It is simple. (2) It is small. (3) It is cheap. (4) It is light. (5) It can be built very quickly. (6) It is very flexible in purpose. (7) Very little development will be required. It will use off the shelf components. (8) The reactor is in the study phase. It is not being built now.

On the other hand a practical reactor can be distinguished by the following characteristics: (1) It is being built now. (2) It is behind schedule. (3) It requires an immense amount of development on apparently trivial items. (4) It is very expensive. (5) It takes a long time to build because of its engineering development problems. (6) It is large. (7) It is heavy. (8) It is complicated.

Every new type of reactor in history has been costlier, slower, and harder than projected. IFRs’ low pressure, different safety profile, high temperature, and potentially higher thermal efficiency (if its helium turbines didn’t misbehave as they have in all previous reactor projects) come with countervailing disadvantages and costs that advocates assume away, contrary to all experience.

Thorium reactors
Some enthusiasts prefer fueling reactors with thorium ­an element 3 times as abundant as uranium but even more uneconomic to use. India has for decades failed to commercialize breeder reactors to exploit its thorium deposits. But thorium can’t fuel a reactor by itself: rather, a uranium- or plutonium fueled reactor can convert thorium-232 into fissionable (and plutonium-like, highly bomb-usable) uranium-233. Thorium’s proliferation, waste, safety, and cost problems differ only in detail from uranium’s: e.g., thorium ore makes less mill waste, but highly radioactive U-232 makes fabricating or reprocessing U-233 fuel hard and costly. And with uranium-based nuclear power continuing its decades-long economic collapse, it’s awfully late to be thinking of developing a whole new fuel cycle whose problems differ only in detail from current versions.

Spent LWR fuel “burned” in IFRs, it’s claimed, could meet all humanity’s energy needs for centuries. But renewables and efficiency can do that forever at far lower cost, with no proliferation, nuclear wastes, or major risks. Moreover, any new type of reactor would probably cost even more than today’s models: even if the nuclear part of a new plant were free, the rest ­ two-thirds of its capital cost ­ would still be grossly uncompetitive with any efficiency and most renewables, sending out a kilowatt-hour for ~9–13¢/kWh instead of new LWRs’ ~12–18+¢. In contrast, the average U.S. wind farm completed in 2007 sold its power (net of a 1¢/ kWh subsidy that’s a small fraction of nuclear subsidies) for 4.5¢/kWh. Add ~0.4¢ to make it dispatchable whether the wind is blowing or not and you get under a nickel delivered to the grid. (1 US$ =  0.7 Euro)

Most other renewables also beat new thermal power plants too, cogeneration is often comparable or cheaper, and efficiency is cheaper than just running any nuclear- or fossil-fueled plant. Obviously these options would also easily beat proposed fusion reactors that are sometimes claimed to be comparable to today’s fission reactors in size and cost. And unlike any kind of hypothetical fusion or new fission reactor ­or LWRs, which have a market share below 2%­ efficiency and micro power now provide at least half the world’s new electrical services, adding tens of times more capacity each year than nuclear power does. It’s a far bigger gamble to assume that the nuclear market loser will become a winner than that these winners will turn to losers.

Small reactors
Toshiba claims to be about to market a 200-kWe nuclear plant (~5,000x smaller than today’s norm); a few startup firms like Hyperion Power Generation aim to make 10¢/kWh electricity from miniature reactors for which it claims over 100 firm orders. Unfortunately, 10¢ is the wrong target to beat: the real competitor is not other big and costly thermal power plants, but micro power and negawatts, whose delivered retail cost is often ~1–6¢/kWh. Can one imagine in principle that mass-production, passive operation, automation (perhaps with zero operating and security staff), and supposedly failsafe design might enable hypothetical small reactors to approach such low costs? No, for two basic reasons:

• Nuclear reactors derive their claimed advantages from highly concentrated sources of heat, and hence also of radiation. But the shielding and thermal protection needed to contain that concentrated energy and exploit it (via turbine cycles) are inherently unable to scale down as well as technologies whose different principles avoid these issues.

• By the time the new reactors could be proven, accepted by regulators and the public, financed, built, and convincingly tested, they couldn’t undercut the then prices of negawatts and micro power that are beating them by 2–20x today­ and would have gained decades of further head start on their own economies of mass production.

In short, the notion that different or smaller reactors plus wholly new fuel cycles (and, usually, new competitive conditions and political systems) could overcome nuclear energy’s inherent problems is not just decades too late, but fundamentally a fantasy. Fantasies are all right, but people should pay for their own. Investors in and advocates of small-reactor innovations will be disappointed. But in due course, the aging advocates of the half-century-old reactor concepts that never made it to market will retire and die, their credulous young devotees will relearn painful lessons lately forgotten, and the whole nuclear business will complete its slow death of an incurable attack of market forces. Meanwhile, the rest of us shouldn’t be distracted from getting on with the winning investments that make sense, make money, and really do solve the energy, climate, and proliferation problems, led by business for profit.


Source and contact: Amory B. Lovins, Rocky Mountain Institute. 2317 Snowmass Creek Road, Snowmass, Colorado 81654-9199, U.S.A.
Tel: +1 970 927-3851