Integral Fast ReactorNuclear power systems create heat through nuclear fission for steam turbines togenerate electricity. The Integral Fast Reactor (IFR) is a nuclear power systemdeveloped at the US Argonne National Laboratory that replenishes, recycles, refinesand fabricates its unique metallic fuel and meets all five criteria for 4th-generationnuclear power listed below.1.Reduce the volume and toxicity of nuclear waste.
Existing nuclear light water reactors (LWRs) use only one percent of their uranium fuel andleave vast amounts of radioactive spent fuel including plutonium as toxic waste to besequestered for multiple thousands of years. IFR pyroprocessing recycles its spent fueluntil all the longest-lasting radioactive elements have been used up. Its much smalleramount of much less toxic waste needs to be sequestered for only 300 years.Pyroprocessing can also recycle LWR spent fuel for IFR use.
2.Keep nuclear materials unsuitable for direct use in weapons.
Nuclear fission weapons use uranium (as at Hiroshima) or plutonium (Nagasaki). Whileweapons-grade uranium has to be enriched to increase its fissile isotope, U-235, from underone percent of natural uranium to more than 80 percent, weapons-grade plutonium can bechemically separated from the uranium that breeds it. But in electro-refining during IFRpyroprocessing, plutonium is mixed with other elements that make it unsuitable forweapons.
3.Be passively safe based on characteristics inherent in the reactor design andmaterials.
Because its fuel is a solid metallic alloy, IFR responds automatically to overheating causedby loss of coolant flow (as at Chernobyl) or output heat sink (Three Mile Island, Fukushima)by slowing or shutting down its reactor power. Overheating causes metal fuel in coreassemblies to expand, thereby increasing reactor size by a miniscule amount but enough toincrease neutron leakage that reduces reactivity and overheating. Other features—liquidsodium metal coolant with high boiling temperature; large sodium-filled reactor poolresisting the temperature increase; and the weak effect in metal fuel of a natural (storedDoppler) tendency to increase reactivity—provide the time and safety margins for thethermal expansion to take effect. The metal fuel also has a low melting temperature; whenall else fails, it will start melting and then disperse, reducing reactivity.
4.Provide a long-term energy source not limited by resources.
By recycling its used uranium fuel and the plutonium fuel that it breeds from uranium, IFRincreases the productivity of mineable uranium a hundred-fold. (Plutonium, a naturalelement like uranium, has to be bred from uranium since it has no mineable sources.) If IFRor a similar breeder supplied all of the world’s needs for electricity, uranium supplies couldlast as long as the planet. Thus IFR is as “renewable” an energy source as solar, wind,water and geothermal.
5.Be economically competitive with other electricity sources.
Since IFR’s systems are small, simple and designed for remote manufacturing, its capitalcosts should be competitive. If the cost of waste storage are accounted for in the operatingcosts of LWRs and the negative externalities of greenhouse gases, toxic emissions and non-conventional mining in fossil fuel plants, IFR should be a runaway winner. Its 24/7availability wherever steam turbines can operate should make it competitive with solar,wind, water and geothermal power.
In 1994 Congress upheld the President’s termination of IFR development as“unnecessary.”
References: Yoon I. Chang, “Advanced Nuclear System for the 21st Century” (2002),http://www.ipd.anl.gov/anlpubs/2002/04/42922.pdf; Charles E. Till, “Plentiful Energy and theIFR Story” (2005), http://www.sustainablenuclear.org/PADs/pad0509till.html; and Till and