Perspective: The DOE Ignores History, Risks Proliferation

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The US Department of Energy’s (DOE) promotion of fast-neutron reactors and plutonium recycle ignores history and tempts fate, argues Frank von Hippel of Princeton University’s Program on Science and Global Security. Such reactors hold little promise and their development risks sparking another round of nuclear-weapon proliferation. Von Hippel recently co-authored the book, Plutonium: How Nuclear Power’s Dream Fuel Became a Nightmare.

In 1977, I served on the steering committee of the Carter administration’s review of the US Liquid Metal [Cooled] Fast Breeder Reactor (LMFBR) Program. The program was transitioning from the US Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) to the DOE.

The LMFBR program was premised on the AEC’s projection that US electricity consumption would continue to double every decade and that reactors would dominate electricity production. Supplying that much nuclear power would require “breeder” reactors fueled with plutonium produced from abundant but non-chain-reacting uranium-238. To generate more plutonium than they consumed, breeder reactor chain reactions needed fast neutrons as a mediator. That ruled out water as a coolant. Molten sodium became the preferred option.

In 1974, the AEC had projected that US nuclear power plants would generate 20 trillion kilowatt hours of electricity in 2020 with breeders generating more than 70% of that. In 2020, however, total US electricity production was 20% of what the AEC had projected nuclear power alone would generate, and nuclear power accounted for only 20% of that.

Instead of the thousands of breeders the AEC envisioned, there are only two prototype sodium-cooled reactors operating today—both in Russia. An additional two are under construction in China and one in India—with each expected to produce, in addition to power, weapon-grade plutonium for their countries’ expanding nuclear arsenals.

As power producers, sodium-cooled reactors have largely lived up to Admiral Hyman Rickover’s observation after he tried one out in 1957 in the second US nuclear submarine: they are “expensive to build, complex to operate, susceptible to prolonged shutdown as a result of even minor malfunctions, and difficult and time-consuming to repair.”

The AEC’s enthusiasm for a “plutonium economy” facilitated India’s acquisition of nuclear weapons and the launch of its dangerous nuclear arms race with Pakistan. It also almost resulted in South Korea becoming a nuclear-weapon state and in a nuclear arms race between Brazil and Argentina.

Given this history, it’s hard to understand why DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy (NE) continues to promote sodium-cooled reactors as “advanced” and plutonium separation and recycle as a way to manage spent fuel.

DOE appears to have forgotten the decades of effort that US administrations put into trying to walk back those earlier promotional efforts, effectively arguing that “We don’t reprocess, you don’t need to either.” Today, only one non-nuclear-weapon state, Japan, separates plutonium with an in-country stock enough for more than 1,000 Nagasaki weapons. But its example has inspired South Korea’s nuclear establishment to campaign for US acceptance of South Korea’s right to emulate Japan.

Under the influence of the Idaho National Laboratory (INL), NE proposed paying $2.6 billion-$5.8 billion to GE-Hitachi and Bill Gates’ nuclear-energy start-up, TerraPower, to build a plutonium-fueled, sodium-cooled “Versatile Test Reactor” at INL. The VTR would provide a test bed for the materials and fuels required for a new generation of sodium-cooled reactors.

NE then agreed to split with GE-Hitachi/TerraPower up to $4 billion of the R&D and construction costs for a 345 megawatt equivalent sodium-cooled Natrium reactor to be built in Wyoming but fueled with up to 19.75% high-assay low-enriched uranium (Haleu).

Concerned about a lack of US-sourced Haleu for its advanced reactor program, NE paid Centrus $115 million to produce it— but canceled the deal after Congress called out the agency for the sole-source contract. Insisting that a national enrichment enterprise is necessary to support civilian nuclear power undermines US efforts to convince Iran and other countries that it is not.

NE funding through Argonne and INL supports Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute efforts to promote sodium-cooled reactors and reprocessing in South Korea—contrary to previous US discouragement of such activity. Given that, according to a recent poll, 71% of South Korea’s public believes the country needs its own nuclear weapons to deter North Korea, this initiative is fraught with proliferation dangers.

NE money flowing into Argonne and INL is likewise benefiting two sodium-cooled reactor start-up companies — Oklo in the US and Moltex Energy in Canada — that attract crowdfunding by claiming their reactors and reprocessing plans will “recycle waste” from existing reactors to “produce more clean energy.” Moltex promises to make Canada an export base for commercializing its reactors and small reprocessing plants around the world.

These proposed ventures can confidently be expected to founder under the weight of their impracticality and their noncompetitive economics. The question, however, is whether, like the AEC’s “plutonium economy” promotion, they will facilitate a new round of nuclear proliferation before they fail.

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