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Clinch River Breeder Reactor Project an example of the folly of nuclear reprocessing

The rise and demise of the Clinch River Breeder Reactor, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, By Henry Sokolski, February 6, 2019 This year marks the 36th anniversary of the termination of the Clinch River Breeder Reactor Project, a federally funded commercial demonstration effort. In the very early 1980s, it was the largest public-works project in the United States. Japan, South Korea, China, France, Russia, and the United States are now all again considering building similar plants. For each, how and why Clinch River was launched and killed is a history that speaks to their nuclear future. This history involves more than cost benefit analysis. For the public and political leadership, facts and arguments rarely close an initial sale of a large government-funded, high-tech commercialization program. Nor do they generally goad officials to abandon such projects. Such acts are fundamentally political: Fears and hopes drive them. Certainly, to understand why the US government launched and subsequently killed Clinch River requires knowledge not just of what the public and its political leadership thought, but also of how they felt.

Unwarranted fears of uranium’s scarcity fueled interest in fast-breeder reactors. …….in 1945, uranium 235, a fissile uranium isotope that can readily sustain a chain reaction, was believed to be so scarce, it was assumed there was not enough of it to produce nuclear electricity on a large scale. Scientists saw the answer in fast-breeder reactors………

The Atomic Energy Commission publicly promoted their commercialization with confident, cartoonish optimism. In one publication, the commission asked the upbeat question: “Johnny had three truckloads of plutonium. He used three of them to power New York for a year. How much plutonium did Johnny have left?” The answer: “Four truckloads.”

Unfortunately, this pitch glossed over two stubborn facts. First, because plutonium is so much more toxic and difficult to handle than uranium, it is many times more expensive to use as a reactor fuel than using fresh uranium. Second, because plutonium fast-breeder reactors use liquid metal coolants, such as liquid sodium, operating them safely is far more challenging and expensive than conventional reactors.

When private industry tried in the early 1960s to operate its own commercial-sized fast-breeder, Fermi I, the benefits were negative. Barely three years after Fermi 1 came online, a partial fuel meltdown in 1966 brought it down. It eventually resumed operations before being officially shut down in 1972.

These facts, however, are rarely emphasized. Those backing breeders—whether it be in 1945, 1975, or today—focus not on reliability and economics, but rather that we are about to run out of affordable uranium. For the moment, of course, we are not. Uranium is plentiful and cheap as is enriching it. This helps explain why the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Japan, and the United States, no longer operate any commercial-sized fast-breeder reactors and are in no immediate rush to build new ones………

When the Atomic Energy Commission argued the case for building a breeder reactor in the late 1960s and early 1970s, it projected 1,000 reactors would be on line in the United States by the year 2000 (the real number turned out to be 103) and that the United States would soon run out of affordable uranium. Also, by the mid-1960s, the commission needed a new, massive project to justify its continued existence. Its key mission, to enrich uranium for bombs and reactors, had been completed and was overbuilt. The commission was running out of construction and research projects commensurate with its large budget. A breeder-reactor- commercialization program with all the reprocessing, fuel testing, and fuel fabrication plants that would go with it, seemed a worthy successor.

But the most powerful political supporter of Clinch River, then-President Richard Nixon, focused on a different point. Nixon saw the project less as a commercial proposition than as a way to demonstrate his power to secure more votes by providing government-funded jobs while at the same time affirming his commitment to big-science, engineering, and progress……….

the Energy Department videotaped safety tests it had conducted of how molten sodium might react once it came in contact with the reactor’s concrete containment structure. Concrete contains water crystals. Molten sodium reacts explosively when it comes in contact with oxygen, including oxygen contained in water. What the test demonstrated and the video showed was concrete exploding when it came in contact with liquid sodium.

This set off waves of worry at the department………

Just weeks before the final vote, the Congressional Budget Office released its financial assessment of the Energy Department’s last ditch effort to use loan guarantees to fund the project. Even under the most conservative assumptions, the budget analysts determined that the loan guarantees would only increase the project’s final costs. This helped push the project over a political cliff. The final Senate vote: 56 against, 40 for. All of the 16 deciding votes came from former Clinch River supporters.

No commercial prospects? Militarize. Nixon backed numerous science commercialization projects like Clinch River, including the Space Shuttle Program and the supersonic transport plane……… While the Space Shuttle Program won congressional support, the envisioned satellite contracts never materialized. The program became heavily dependent on military contracts. Finally, our national security depended upon it.

Although Clinch River never was completed, as its costs spiraled, it too attracted military attention. …….

Essentially, it didn’t matter when you asked–1971 or 1983—Clinch River was always another seven years and at least another $2.1 billion away from completion. ……

With Clinch River, what we now know, we may yet repeat. Fast-reactor commercialization projects and support efforts, such as Argonne National Laboratory’s Small Modular Fast Reactor, the US-South Korean Pyroreprocessing effort, the Energy Department’s Virtual (Fast) Test Reactor, France’s Astrid Fast Reactor Project, the PRISM Reactor, the TerraPower Traveling Wave reactor, India’s thorium breeder, Russia’s BN-1200, China’s Demonstration Fast-Breeder Reactor, continue to capture the attention and support of energy officials in Japan, China, Russia, South Korea, France, the US, and India. None of these countries have yet completely locked in their decisions. How sound their final choices turn out to be, will ultimately speak to these governments’ credibility and legitimacy.

In the case of Clinch River, the decision to launch the program ultimately rested on a cynical set of political calculations alloyed to an ideological faith in fast reactors and the future of the “plutonium economy.” Supporters saw this future clearly. As a nuclear engineer explained to me in 1981 at Los Alamos National Laboratory, the United States technically could build enough breeder reactors to keep the country electrically powered for hundreds of years without using any more oil, coal, or uranium. When I asked him, though, who would pay for this, he simply snapped that only fools let economics get in the way of the future.

This argument suggests that the case for fast reactors is beyond calculation or debate, something mandatory and urgent. That, however, never was the case, nor is it now. Instead, the equitable distribution of goods, which is a key metric of both economic and governmental performance (and ultimately of any government’s legitimacy and viability), has always taken and always must take costs into account. In this regard, we can only hope that remembering how and why Clinch River was launched and killed will help get this accounting right for similar such high-tech commercialization projects now and in the future. https://thebulletin. org/2019/02/the-rise-and- demise-of-the-clinch-river- breeder-reactor/?utm_source= Bulletin%20Newsletter&utm_ medium=iContact%20email&utm_ campaign=ClinchRiver_February6

 

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February 11, 2019 - Posted by | Reference, reprocessing, USA

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