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Plentiful Energy: The Story of the Integral Fast Reactor: The complex history of a simple reactor technology, with emphasis on its scientific bases for non-specialists Paperback – December 6, 2011
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About the Author
Dr. CHARLES E. TILL received his Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the Imperial College, University of London, in 1960. Early in his career he worked on a variety of reactor concepts, including the U.K. gas-cooled reactor, the Canadian heavy water reactor and the U.S. light water reactor upon joining Argonne National Laboratory in 1963. There, after a year or two, Dr. Till became been deeply involved in the development of the fast breeder reactor. From 1980 onward, as Associate Laboratory Director for Engineering Research, Till led the large Argonne reactor development program for seventeen of its most innovative and productive years. He created the Integral Fast Reactor concept and spearheaded the development of its underlying technologies. An advanced reactor technology with revolutionary improvements in safety, nuclear waste disposal, and resource usage, this was a major effort involving a thousand to two thousand engineers and supporting staff and carried out over the ten year period from 1984 to 1994 at Argonne’s two sites, its main laboratory in Illinois, and its big reactor facilities on the desert in Idaho. A Fellow of American Nuclear Society and recipient of its Walker Cisler Medal for distinguished contributions to fast reactor development, he was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 1989. Dr. YOON IL CHANG received his Ph.D. in nuclear science from the University of Michigan in 1971. After a short time at Nuclear Assurance Corporation working on nuclear fuel cycle services, he joined Argonne National Laboratory in 1974, hired initially by Till as a reactor analyst. With the initiation of the Integral Fast Reactor program in 1984, as Till’s deputy and as the program’s General Manager, he managed the program through its ten years of development. Bringing all the many parts on IFR program together in a coherent and focused program, it was Chang who saw to its progress day by day, month by month. Upon Till’s retirement in 1998, Dr. Chang succeeded him as Associate Laboratory Director for Engineering Research, and also served as Interim Laboratory Director. The recipient of outstanding alumni awards from the University of Michigan and Seoul National University, a Fellow of American Nuclear Society and recipient of its Walker Cisler Medal, he received the Department of Energy’s Ernest Orlando Lawrence Award in 1994 for his technical leadership role in the IFR development.
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The book, sprinkled copiously with why's and wherefore's and their answers, is intended for the non-specialist and for the non-technical reader. It meets this goal admirably, in that the neophyte will enjoy the very human aspects of the science while wanting to skim over some of the scientific details, whereas the more expert in nuclear matters would want more technical details than are given. The latter can dig into the numerous references. All in all it is a very readable educational book about a most important chapter in American scientific history. Nuclear proponents might well rejoice in the potential outlined and despair in the potential foregone. Antinuclear advocates might want to reconsider their stance in light of the potential of eliminating existing nuclear fuel waste. Politicians may shake their heads at the decisions of their predecessors in light of current nuclear waste policy difficulties. Most of all it is a thought-provoking read.
Of the fourteen chapters in the book the first four are devoted to the human elements of the science, the people, the interactions and the relationship of nuclear energy to other energy sources. Only then are we introduced to the thinking that led to the choices of the specific power plant design.
The reactor facility that was chosen incorporated only two major components that together constituted the IFR, the Integral Fast Reactor facility. The first was a sodium-cooled fast-neutron reactor, the metal-fueled EBR-II, capable at that time already of consuming in one pass 20% of nuclear uranium fuel or of used nuclear fuel waste that includes long-lived plutonium, americium, curium, etc. No power reactor can claim this, even today, where all water-cooled reactors consume less than 1% of the mined uranium. Those 20% uranium or other heavy atoms are turned into smaller atoms whose radioactivity decays to background levels in two to three hundred years as opposed to the several hundred thousand years for the original plutoniums. The second component was a pyroprocessor, an electrorefiner operating at high temperature in a molten salt bath, which separated the smaller atoms from the remaining 80% uranium and other heavy atoms. These heavy atoms, still being fuel, could be topped up with 20% used nuclear fuel waste from other reactors or depleted uranium from reprocessing plants, and cycled back into the reactor for further rounds of 20% utilization. Thus in five cycles one complete reactor-full of fuel or of currently stored used nuclear fuel waste would be completely consumed.
The authors make it clear that this complete 100% utilization of nuclear fuel from whatever existing source would increase or extend the energy from nuclear power reactors about 100-fold over current fuel consumption levels. This is carbon-free power for electricity or for use as industrial and private heat available for a very long time, centuries, while using up currently stored nuclear fuel waste in the process. Just as clear is the message that the long-term radioactive burden of that waste is reduced by a factor of 1000 to 100,000 as it is consumed, depending on what level is used as a background comparison. There would be no highly radioactive long-lived heavy atoms left at all above background levels. Likewise, after 300 years, even strontium-90 is gone and so is cesium-137, the most worrisome remaining radioactive isotopes among the small atom products.
The book was written after the Fukushima Daiichi catastrophe in Japan. Therefore a complete chapter, Chapter 7, is devoted to a discussion of safety of the EBR-II reactor. Detailed characteristics are described for continual non-power-requiring removal of decay heat from the reactor core (the bane of the Fukushima Daiichi and of the Three-Mile-Island reactors), and for reactor shut down without human or automated intervention under conditions of no cooling for the reactor core (the cause of the Chernobyl disaster). The EBR-II reactor at full power was tested under these rather severe conditions in 1986 and passed easily even with deliberately inactivated control rods. Its safety features are a proven fact, not calculated probabilities. Thus this fast-neutron reactor, operating in the U.S.A. from 1964 to 1994, would have avoided the sequellae of all three major nuclear happenings.
The book is well worth the read. I could not put it down until I had read it twice.
University of Toronto
This book's one weakness is that it tries to address itself to all audiences. It would probably have been better as two volumes. Some parts are too basic for the technically literate, and other parts are too technical for the general public.
"Plentiful Energy" is important and should be read by all policy-makers as well as the public. It has a lot of material and you can skip the parts that are either too basic or too technical for you and it'll still be well worth your time and money.
To ignore the research is to pass up one of the finest solutions to energy needs that we have to date.
Thanks Chuck and Yoon!
This book tells the technical story of the Integral Fast Reactor project at Argonne National Laboratory from 1984 to 1994. The scope of the story is broad and whole. The depth of the details may sometimes be challenging for the general reader. But the essence of the book is the record of scientific research and development at the highest level, reflecting the level of accomplishment attainable by dedicated scientists and engineers. The authors make the case that the Integral Fast Reactor technology, grown from early concepts, can be the basis for an inexhaustible future energy source.
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