Our Nuclear Trash Heap Needs IFRs

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Argonne National Laboratory conducted testing on IFRs

Many energy experts may regard Guardian columnist George Monbiot as a nuclear firebrand who’s been tipped with an environmental persuasion. But his Dec. 5 column – A Waste of Waste  – is a document that should be read by all persons with an interest in our planet’s energy requirements, regardless of their position on nuclear energy following the ongoing problems taking place at Japan’s Fukoshima nuclear facility.

Make no mistake: Monbiot, an environmental crusader with considerable and logical history, has asked an important question regarding our management of  nuclear waste: “Why bury nuclear waste, when it could meet the world’s energy needs?”

He cites the important, must-read 2008 book by environmentalist Tom Blees, “Prescription for the Planet  where he presents information from study scientists about the remarkable, yet untapped potential of integral fast reactors (short form – IFRs) that were developed at the Argonne National Laboratory between 1984 and 1994 before being shut down and dismantled under U.S. Congressional order during the administration of President Bill Clinton.

Reason to be concerned? Monbiot addresses the anti-nuclear movement head-on: “Anti-nuclear campaigners have generated as much mumbo-jumbo as creationists, anti-vaccine scaremongers, homeopaths and climate change deniers. In all cases, the scientific process has been thrown into reverse: people have begun with their conclusions, then frantically sought evidence to support them.

Try the considerable amount of waste generated from the manufacture of nuclear weapons. “Is it really waste,” Monbiot asks, “or could it be used another way?” Can the green mantra – “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” – be made into a viable solution when it comes to discussions about nuclear waste?

Using information from Blees obtained from scientists who worked on the Integral Fast Reactor Project, Monbiot writes, “These are nuclear power stations which can run on what old nuclear plants have left behind. Conventional nuclear power uses just 0.6% of the energy contained in the uranium that fuels it. Integral fast reactors can use almost all the rest.”

Whether naysayer or supporter of anything with the term nuclear in its foundation, it must be conceded that we have an extraordinary amount of nuclear waste on this planet of ours – enough, argue Monbiot and Blees, to meet the world’s energy needs for several hundred years, with little in the way of carbon emissions. (See Blees’ insightful 27-minute interview on You Tube.)

IFRs need to be loaded with fissile material (uranium-233, uranium-235, and plutonium-239) only once, after which they can keep recycling ever more of its energy, until a small fraction of the waste remains.

Renewable energy can and should be a dynamic part of this solution. It is unable to scale up to the demand for electricity anywhere near fast enough. In an interview, Blees refers to a Scientific American study regarding meeting our electrical demand with solar energy which surmised we needed 39,000 square miles of solar panels just to meet 69 percent of electrical demand in the United States.

Monbiot concludes with this sobering, but accurate perspective: “So we environmentalists have a choice. We can’t wish the waste away. Either it is stored and then buried. Or it is turned into mox fuels. Or it is used to power IFRs. The decision is being made at the moment, and we should determine where we stand. I suggest we take the radical step of using science, not superstition, as our guide.”

A growing number of people need to study and share this concern.

Photo: Michael Kappel

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Glenn Meyers

is a writer, producer, and director. Meyers was editor and site director of Green Building Elements, a contributing writer for CleanTechnica, and is founder of Green Streets MediaTrain, a communications connection and eLearning hub. As an independent producer, he's been involved in the development, production and distribution of television and distance learning programs for both the education industry and corporate sector. He also is an avid gardener and loves sustainable innovation.

Glenn Meyers has 449 posts and counting. See all posts by Glenn Meyers