14. A Path Forward

The forgoing has been directed at identifying some of the engineering challenges that need to be addressed to arrive at a commercially attractive LMFBR design. However, the path forward must deal with more than plant engineering. An initial plant which serves as a demonstration that embodies the basic principles in this work must be built to establish widespread utility industry confidence in the concept. This section addresses some of the institutional issues and facility requirements that have been alluded to previously but not systematically considered.

In the United States, the government seems to perform construction projects well when it is faced with an emergency. The Manhattan Project is an excellent example. If the country were to defer deployment of the breeder reactor until natural gas supplies were exhausted, it would be faced with an emergency, and government performance might be equal to the task. Unfortunately, if this were to happen, it could be too late and would be much more difficult. There is not enough plutonium available to fuel a large fleet of breeders from a dead start. The plutonium needed must either come from the reprocessing of LWR spent fuel or be bred by the breeders themselves, and the breeders are more effective at the task of producing plutonium. With no reprocessing the only separated plutonium currently available in the U.S. is unused weapons plutonium which is of insufficient quantity to fuel a large fleet of LMFBRs. Reprocessing, breeder reactor development and deployment must begin well before natural gas supplies are depleted.

As was stated in Section 1, the breeder reactor is dependent on reprocessing. It would be possible to fuel a small number of LMFBRs with plutonium that has been recovered from weapons but there would be no point in doing so. The LMFBR spent fuel must be reprocessed to recover the bred plutonium if the plants are to be sustainable and increase in number. Either an LMFBR demonstration plant together with a reprocessing plant is built at the same time or a reprocessing plant is constructed first. Clearly, it would be more tractable to sequence the construction of these two building blocks if possible.

If one contemplates constructing a reprocessing plant first, there is the question of who would be the customer. A reprocessing plant produces three streams, uranium, plutonium, and fission products/actinides. The market for the plutonium stream would be the breeder reactors which would come later so there would no near term market. The uranium stream, which has by far the greatest mass rate of flow, would have enrichment somewhat higher than natural uranium and therefore should have value greater than natural uranium. It could be re-enriched or blended with higher enrichment uranium and reused by LWRs. This was the intent when the Barnwell plant was being constructed. At a market price of $35/lb. for U3O8 the uranium stream of a 1000 MTU/yr. reprocessing plant would fetch perhaps $50 Million per year which, by itself, is not a compelling return on the capital investment of the plant. Complicating the economics further, the uranium stream contains about 0.02% each of U234 and U236, and about 0.0001% U233 which together cause the uranium stream to be about 20 times more radioactive than non-reprocessed uranium. This increased radioactivity would need to be considered in the designs of both the enrichment plant and the fuel fabrication plant that uses reprocessed uranium.

It is somewhat of an irony that the entity that stands to gain the most from the availability of commercial reprocessing is the federal government – the same entity that was responsible for stopping Barnwell plant construction in 1976-7. After Barnwell was halted, the government assumed responsibility for the disposal of nuclear waste generated in the United States with the Nuclear Waste Policy Act. Its attempts to fulfill that responsibility so far have resulted in the expenditure of about $20 Billion and have yielded only a construction permit application and some exploratory shafts inside Yucca Mountain in Nevada. In view of the enormous size and complexity of the facilities contemplated for installation at Yucca combined with the remoteness of the site, it is no stretch of imagination to expect at least another $50 Billion would be required to complete the repository project – that is assuming it were even possible to do so, given the obvious political issues involved. Assuming that the repository is designed for disposal of 100,000 MTHM (metric tonnes heavy metal), if the cost estimate suggested above is approximately correct, the cost of waste disposal is at least $500 Million per 1000 MTHM, which was the planned annual throughput of the Barnwell plant.

There are two major cost drivers for a repository of the type contemplated for construction at Yucca Mountain – the substantial volume of the waste and the actinides contained in the waste. A reprocessing plant would reduce the waste volume by a factor of over 100 and the waste stream would be amenable for removal of the actinides. Once the actinides have been removed, the remaining fission product waste stream could be vitrified and stored in a convenient surface facility. After about 300 years, the total radioactivity of the remaining vitrified fission products is comparable to the uranium from which it was originally derived.

The Barnwell plant was designed to reprocess about 1000 MTHM per year. The original cost estimate of the Barnwell plant was in the $300-400 Million range. Construction of the same plant today would likely be in the $1-2 Billion range. If the federal government were to pay ~$250M per year for volume reduction of the waste for which they are responsible, a private entity may be incentivized to proceed with construction of such a plant if given reasonable assurances that it would be licensable. Development of a reliable process for removal of the actinides from the waste stream is a task that could be assigned to the national labs or it could be contracted. It is unlikely that the cost of implementing such a process on the waste stream would be anywhere close to $250M/yr, which would result in a savings to the government as compared to a repository, which has proven to be politically impossible to build. A Barnwell-type plant would probably not be able to reprocess LMFBR fuel, but there would be no spent LMFBR fuel to reprocess until 15 or more years after the first plant begins operating. About three years of Barnwell-type plant operation reprocessing LWR spent fuel would be sufficient to provide the needed plutonium for the initial loading of a single LMFBR.

The CRBRP project provided a model of government industry cooperation from which it is possible to learn lessons and draw conclusions. The government (DOE) was in charge of that project and it was the government’s executive involvement which turned out to have been a mistake. The fates of both CRBRP and the repository program are object lessons of the difficulty experienced by DOE with the completion of a major nuclear project. The annual appropriations process combined with changing administrations makes the government particularly ill suited to carry out and complete any project that requires more than four years to execute. The presence of the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB) that has oversight on DOE adds another layer of unquantifiable risk into the DOE equation.

For CRBRP, the utility industry formed the Breeder Reactor Corporation (BRC) which provided $750 million from the contributions of over 400 electric utility companies in exchange for rights to the intellectual property flowing from the project. The BRC in turn created the Project Management Corporation (PMC) which was the operational arm of the project and was responsible for communicating project progress to the BRC. PMC together with the DOE formed a joint project office for the purpose of providing overall management of the project participants. Although the PMC personnel had meaningful roles in the project, all the key positions were occupied by DOE employees, so the utility industry ability to participate in the key decision making process was limited. It was always clear that the DOE had ultimate responsibility. In many cases, particularly early in the project before the joint project office was formed, utility industry leadership was not even consulted on key decisions.

For any future LMFBR project, it will be necessary to once again enlist the participation of the utility industry. This will not be an easy sell – the legacy of the CRBRP project is unpleasant and the key decision makers in the utility industry are likely to have long memories. Nonetheless, there is no alternative. The ultimate users of the technology must be in the driver’s seat from the beginning if it is to have any prospect of being accepted by them. It would not be necessary to begin with a major financial solicitation as was done with the BRC, but an “interested party” could be formed drawn from utility industry personnel with modest expenditure. Possibly, the “interested party” could wind up as a group within EPRI, but other special purpose institutional arrangements made by the electric utility personnel may be preferable.

Utility industry leadership in an LMFBR project is not unprecedented — the Fermi I project was executed under utility industry leadership, first by Detroit Edison, then by Atomic Power Development Associates (APDA) acting in conjunction with the Power Reactor Development Company (PRDC), both of which were creatures of a consortium of interested electric utility companies. (The utility companies were joined by other interested companies such as Allis-Chalmers and Westinghouse. There was also international participation from Japan and other countries.) There was some financial contribution from the AEC, but most of the financial support came from the participating private utility companies. The AEC acted in an advisory and regulatory role, but the decision making was entirely the responsibility of APDA and PRDC. This institutional arrangement resulted in a project that came much closer to success than CRBRP.

For there to be any prospect of enticing the electric utility industry into a new breeder project, the position of the government must be transparent. So what should be the federal government’s role? Foremost, it is essential that the government withdraw its objection to commercial reprocessing and recognize the uncoupling of nuclear power from nuclear weapons proliferation. This needs to be done at a policy level in the President’s office. It is long past time to disavow the legacy left behind by Jimmy Carter. The government may also need to furnish some fraction of the plutonium necessary for the initial core load should the reprocessing plant experience difficulties. Beyond that, there is not much that should be expected from the federal government. The politics of a democracy will always be focused on the short term. Taking highly visible steps that are politically risky to address a future need that may not materialize for fifty or more years is something that will not happen within the U.S. government.

The federal government could make a meaningful contribution with limited R&D assistance. However, any such development activity carried out by the National Labs should have involvement and oversight of the private sector participants that are moving forward with actual projects. The labs could provide considerable assistance with core design, materials identification, fuels performance data, and development assistance with items such as the flow control devices that are needed on the blanket assemblies. The extent to which the labs can be made partners and supporters of the project can potentially have enormous impact on a favorable outcome.

The “interested party” identified above would represent the private sector participants and may include some industrial participation such as the potential owner(s) of the first reprocessing plant. Almost certainly, the “interested party” would be a principal motivator for getting the reprocessing plant underway, coordinating government and industry participants, and participating in the identification of design requirements. The “interested party” probably should limit participation within its ranks by engineering firms that might be later contracted to develop detailed design to limit their influence at the conceptual stage. There is adequate engineering talent available in the electric utility industry. An early purpose for the “interested party” would be to develop a conceptual design for the LMFBR that has a firm grounding in analysis and is consistent with the needs of the electric utility industry.

Once commercial reprocessing is in place, one worthy role for the national laboratories would be to develop processes for removal of the actinides from the waste stream. With the actinides removed from the Purex waste stream, the remaining fission products could be vitrified and stored in some above ground facility. Geologic disposal should turn out to be unnecessary given sufficient effectiveness of actinide removal.

After sufficient confidence has been developed in the conceptual design and believable cost estimates are in place, the preliminary design for the LMFBR plant could be developed and submitted to the NRC. The CRBRP project made the mistake of setting a schedule which required major component procurement before there was a license. The project had no alternative but to capitulate to all the NRC’s demands. The “interested party” must retain the option to walk away should the licensing process lead to a design that is inconsistent with utility industry objectives. It is unlikely that the NRC would agree to a one-step licensing procedure for the first LMFBR to be licensed since Fermi-1, but a major retrofit at the FSAR stage requiring significant demolition and reconstruction would seem unlikely. Once a preliminary design certification (or PSER if the site has been selected) is in hand, the project may proceed at its own selected pace.

When a reprocessing plant is operational and a plutonium stream becomes available, the LMFBR becomes closer to realization. It would be necessary for some provision to be made for fabrication of the fuel to be used in the plant since existing LWR fuel fabrication facilities are incapable of fabricating plutonium bearing fuel. At the time of the CRBRP project, there was a plan to fabricate fuel for the CRBRP in an unused facility near the FFTF. The remains of that effort could be recovered or alternatively the fabrication facility could be capitalized into and collocated with the demonstration plant. Since the power plant requires refueling only once every ten years, the throughput of the needed fabrication plant is modest. Nonetheless, the fabrication plant is likely to be expensive (~$300 million) so its financing needs to be thought through. Since the fuel in the internal and radial blankets is depleted uranium, their fabrication could be accomplished at an existing commercial facility.

The demonstration plant would most probably be undertaken by some sort of PMC-like or APDA-like entity created and funded by the nation’s electric utility industry. The entity would be an outgrowth of the “interested party” above and would develop the detailed design, select the site, procure components, and initiate plant construction. The host utility would derive the benefit of the power produced and would be expected to furnish the funding equal to a comparably sized LWR minus some percentage, perhaps 30%, to account for the greater risk associated with the deployment of a new concept. Any additional funding would need to be made up by a consortium of electric utility companies. Needless to say, if the total cost of the plant comes anywhere close to the cost of an equivalently sized LWR, the project is unlikely to go forward; so the contributions from the consortium should be small.

After the power plant has operated ten years and the spent fuel has cooled sufficiently to permit reprocessing, a reprocessing plant committed to LMFBR spent fuel would become necessary at some point. LWR reprocessing plants would probably be able to keep up with the plutonium requirements of new LMFBRs for a while, but eventually the spent LMFBR fuel must be reprocessed. Once there are several LMFBRs in operation, a market for plutonium will develop which would justify the construction of such a facility. The figure below illustrates the process described above with the essential nearer term components shown in heavy lines.

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Figure 43 LMFBR fuel cycle

There is one final point to be made before closing. Once a market for plutonium develops, the cost of plutonium will inevitably rise and affect the core design and likely the refueling design. The design concept being advanced here is intended to get the ball rolling and get some early plants built so experience can be acquired with the concept well before the “energy crunch” develops. It may be 30, 50, or hopefully 100 years before the United States is faced with the “energy crunch”. However, if one were to begin the “path forward” proposed in this section in the relatively near term, in view of all that needs to be done, it could easily be thirty or forty years later before the first plant shuts down for its initial refueling. A second plant would likely not begin until after some operating experience had accumulated with the first plant. Bringing a new technology such as is envisioned here to fruition takes a very long time and when one considers the time required to build plutonium inventory sufficient to support a large fleet of LMFBRs, it would be a mistake to delay starting the process. It can fairly easily be shown that even with a 100 year time horizon, the sooner the first steps are taken in this plan, the better.