Friday, April 1, 2016

SECURE and the IFR

Other low-temperature reactors - used for warming entire communities - are not new to the world... just to U.S. citizens with our abysmal lack of scientific knowledge. For instance, a Swedish and Finnish consortium has designed a 200 MW inherently safe reactor called SECURE - with no moving parts, not even control rods - as the reactivity level is controlled by the content of boric acid in the coolant/moderator. [Safe and Environmentally Clean Urban REactor]

Finally, there is another reactor design known as the Integral Fast Reactor, which I find fascinating, because it is fueled by natural uranium and is as close to a perpetual motion machine as we are likely to get. [See Integral Fast Reactor, available from Argonne National Laboratories, P.O. Box 2528, Idaho Falls, ID 83415.]

It operates in a vessel filled with liquid sodium (melting point, 208 degrees Fahrenheit), which is a much better heat-transfer agent than water - along with having certain desirable nuclear characteristics. It reportedly produces 100 to 200 times more electrical energy per pound of fuel than obtainable from existing plants. The prototype plant, at Idaho Falls, was designed to be virtually self-contained with the capability of fabricating, using and reprocessing the spent fuel "on-site." It is inherently safe from a meltdown, since the fuel assemblies are configured in such a manner as to shut down the reaction when the temperature increases above its maximum design point. As a test, the entire heat transfer system was shut down while operating at full power - without causing any harm to the reactor.

While it is unlikely that the fuel-processing part of the operation could be scaled down to community or residential proportions, the inherent safety of the reactor is intriguing, along with its use of natural (unenriched) uranium. It is likely that radiation would be an insignificant factor compared with keeping the sodium contained, since contact with either water or air causes some pretty nasty chemical reactions. (It is best kept submerged in kerosene or naphtha.)

As far as I know, a low-power, inherently safe reactor has not been designed for community or home use. Why? I suspect it's because the prevailing fear of low-level radiation would keep any reasonably intelligent investor in the "sow bellies futures" market where at least there is a chance of making a profit. Why design a product that will cost more in attorneys' fees each time you sell one than the sale price of the product itself? Although much of the technology is there and proven, it just won't happen in today's climate ruled by the Linear No-Threshold bureaucracy.

But if we can create an understanding of actual - as opposed to perceived - radiation dangers, the technology will surely flourish. Because of higher efficiencies? No, large power reactors operating at high temperatures have higher efficiencies than would a home or community reactor and are well suited for commercial and industrial power production - but they also have transmission losses, transformer losses, costs of installing and maintaining pole-line hardware, and other overhead expenses that can be eliminated by decentralization, especially for small, off-the-beaten-path residential customers who use only a few thousand kilowatt-hours per month.

Would we require a government program to make this happen? Not at all. Just get the government out of the way, and let market forces determine what is worthy and what is not. As Paul Johnson put it: "For capitalism merely occurs, if no one does anything to stop it. It is socialism that has to be constructed, and as a rule, forcibly imposed, thus providing a far bigger role for intellectuals in its genesis." ["The heartless loves of humankind," Wall Street Journal, January 5, 1987.]