Whatever happened to the 'integral fast reactor'?
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 … 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', https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2012/jul/20/richard-branson-obam...
2. John H. Richardson, 17 Nov. 2009, 'Meet the Man Who Could End Global Warming', https://www.esquire.com/news-politics/a6657/nuclear-waste-disposal-1209/
3. Advanced Reactor Concepts, https://www.arcnuclear.com/
4. World Nuclear Association, 10 July 2018, 'First partner announced for New Brunswick SMR project', http://www.world-nuclear-news.org/NN-First-partner-announced-for-New-Bru...
5. Dan Yurman, 15 July 2018, 'Argonne's IFR to Live Again at Point Lepreau, New Brunswick', https://neutronbytes.com/2018/07/15/argonnes-ifr-to-live-again-at-point-...
6. Connell Smith, 21 March 2019, 'Reactor developers propose a manufacturing hub — and a small nuclear plant', https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/new-brunswick/lepreau-nuclear-energy-clim...
7. Canadian Nuclear Association, 9 July 2018, 'New Brunswick should have second nuclear reactor: energy minister', https://cna.ca/news_cna/new-brunswick-should-have-second-nuclear-reactor...
8. US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Feb 1994, "Preapplication Safety Evaluation Report for the Power Reactor Innovative Small Module (PRISM) Liquid-Metal Reactor", https://www.nrc.gov/docs/ML0634/ML063410561.pdf
9. Hitachi, 13 Nov 2018, 'GE Hitachi and PRISM Selected for U.S. Department of Energy's Versatile Test Reactor Program', http://www.hitachi-hgne.co.jp/en/news/2018/2018news03.html
10. Duncan Williams, 20 Jan 2010, 'Under The Hood With Duncan Williams - GE Hitachi's PRISM Reactor', http://nuclearstreet.com/nuclear_power_industry_news/b/nuclear_power_new...
11. Tom Blees, 4 June 2011, 'Response to a consultation on the management of the UK's plutonium stocks', http://bravenewclimate.com/2011/06/04/uk-pu-cc/
12. Nuclear Monitor #831, 5 Oct 2016, 'The slow death of fast reactors', https://www.wiseinternational.org/nuclear-monitor/831/slow-death-fast-re...
13. Mark Hibbs, 17 Feb 2017, 'Rethinking China's Fast Reactor', http://www.armscontrolwonk.com/archive/1202830/rethinking-chinas-fast-re...
14. Tom Blees, 4 July 2017, 'Good News!', http://www.thesciencecouncil.com/index.php/tom-blees-president/315-good-...
15. World Nuclear News, 28 Oct 2010, 'Prototype Prism proposed for Savannah River', http://www.world-nuclear-news.org/NN-Prototype_Prism_proposed_for_Savann...
16. Savannah River Nuclear Solutions, 2010 Annual Report, https://www.srs.gov/srns/docs/srns_2010_annual_report.pdf
17. GE, 31 Oct 2016, 'GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy and Southern Nuclear to Collaborate on Advanced Reactor Development and Licensing', https://www.genewsroom.com/press-releases/ge-hitachi-nuclear-energy-and-...
18. Dan Yurman, 31 Oct 2016, 'Southern Signs On for the PRISM Advanced Reactor', http://neutronbytes.com/2016/10/31/southern-signs-on-for-the-prism-advan...
19. High Bridge Energy Development Company, 2 June 2017, 'Nuclear Industry Team Collaborating on Advanced Reactor Licensing and Development', https://gehitachiprism.com/nuclear-industry-team-collaborating-on-advanc...
20. GE Hitachi, 7 June 2016, 'PRISM & U.S. Licensing', https://www.nrc.gov/public-involve/conference-symposia/adv-rx-non-lwr-ws...
21. Jenny Callison, 6 Nov 2014, 'GE Hitachi Receives Federal Funds To Assess New Nuclear Technology', http://www.wilmingtonbiz.com/technology/2014/11/06/ge_hitachi_receives_f...
22. Tomas Kellner, 6 Nov 2014, 'This Advanced Nuclear Reactor Feasts on Radioactive Leftovers', http://www.gereports.com/post/101863876380/this-advanced-nuclear-reactor...
23. NRC, accessed May 2019, 'Industry-Led Licensing Modernization Project', https://www.nrc.gov/reactors/new-reactors/advanced.html
24. Tom Blees, Nov 2018, 'SCGI President's Message, November 2018', http://www.thesciencecouncil.com/index.php/about/founder-and-president/3...
25. World Nuclear Association, 15 November 2018, 'PRISM selected for US test reactor programme', http://www.world-nuclear-news.org/Articles/PRISM-selected-for-US-test-re...
26. INL, 13 Nov 2018, GE Hitachi Awarded Subcontract for Work Supporting Proposed Versatile Test Reactor, https://inl.gov/article/subcontract-awarded-for-versatile-test-reactor/
27. International Panel on Fissile Materials, 17 Feb 2010, 'History and status of fast breeder reactor programs worldwide', http://fissilematerials.org/blog/2010/02/history_and_status_of_fas.html
28. Nuclear Monitor #831, 5 Oct 2016, 'The slow death of fast reactors', www.wiseinternational.org/nuclear-monitor/831/slow-death-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', https://allthingsnuclear.org/elyman/alternatives-to-multibillion-dollar-...
30. Edwin Lyman, 11 June 2018, 'UCS technical rebuttal to the Idaho National Laboratory's opinions on the Versatile (Fast) Test Reactor', https://s3.amazonaws.com/ucs-documents/global-security/Lyman-Response-IN...
31. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, accessed 20 May 2019, 'Next Generation Nuclear Plant (NGNP)', https://www.nrc.gov/reactors/new-reactors/advanced/ngnp.html