By Mark Halper
Posting in Cities
And Amazon's Jeff Bezos has a fusion machine. But Branson would be uniquely positioned to offer nuclear electricity in exchange for air miles, as he pushes for 'fast neutron' technology.
Flamboyant British entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson has written to President Barack Obama seeking help commercializing an alternative type of nuclear reactor known as an Integral Fast Reactor.
As I reported in the Guardian, where I broke the story on Friday, Branson wrote to the White House requesting a meeting with Obama and with Energy Secretary Steven Chu to discuss how integral fast reactors (IFRs) could rid the world of hazardous nuclear waste by burning it as fuel, while at the same time providing a more efficient and safer CO2-free source of energy than today's conventional water-cooled reactors.
IFRs also reduce the risk of proliferating nuclear weapons, the letter points out.
"American companies would like to commercialize this technology and are prepared to begin building these reactors right away," the letter to Obama states. "But we are convinced that this will not happen without your personal involvement and support."
Branson, known for his Virgin brand of media and airline companies, isn't the only well-known billionaire advocating IFRs, also known as "fast neutron reactors," "fast reactors," and sometimes as "breeder reactors." Microsoft founder Bill Gates is developing a type of fast reactor known as a traveling wave reactor, through his startup company TerraPower.
Branson told me he has not invested money in an IFR or IFR company - unlike Gates, who is a primary shareholder in TerraPower. One might assume, however, that Branson would invest, should U.S. policy shape up favorably. That could set up the intriguing prospect of Branson versus Gates in the nuclear business (or who knows - the two could even partner).
"Obviously we urgently need to come up with a clean effective way of supplying our energy since not only are the dirty ways like oil running out but we need to do so to help avoid the world heating up," Branson told me in an email.
That echoes the sentiments of the letter requesting a meeting with Obama, which the president declined.
The letter, which I have seen, was written on Branson Necker Island stationery. Necker Island is Branson's 74-acre patch in the Caribbean, a favorite hangout of his when he's not racing hot air balloons or performing other publicity stunts, like jumping off the roof of a Las Vegas hotel or driving across the English Channel in an amphibious car.
It was cosigned by two other individuals: NASA Goddard Institute head and Columbia University adjunct professor James Hansen, a renowned campaigner against man made climate change; and by Eric Loewen, who is the president of the American Nuclear Society and also the chief engineer on General Electric Hitachi's IFR, called PRISM. Loewen signed the letter as the president of the ANS. GEH has proposed PRISM as a way to dispose of plutonium waste at Britain's Sellafield nuclear facility.
"Unlike today's nuclear reactor, the IFR can generate unlimited amounts inexpensive clean power for hundreds of thousands of years," the letter states. "It provides an excellent solution for what to do with our nuclear wast because it can use our existing nuclear waste for fuel and it is significantly more proliferation-resistant than other methods of dealing with nuclear waste.
"The IFR is also inherently safe. In an emergency, unlike today's reactors, it shuts down without human intervention and without requiring electric power... Hundreds of nuclear scientists believe this technology has the ability to generate carbon-free power at a cost per kW less than coal."
Like with other hopeful alternative nuclear technologies such as thorium, the idea for IFRs has been around for decades. The U.S. ran a test IFR in Idaho from 1964 through 1994 called the Experimental Breeder Reactor II (after operating is predecessor EBR in the 1950s). EBR II is the basis for GE-Hitachi's PRISM.
Critics say that IFRs are difficult to build, and question their safety. Japan's Monju IFR suffered a leak and fire in 1995, and incurred another accident in 2010 when a fuel replacement device fell into the reactor. It is currently shut.
But proponents say that politics, not faulty technology, have been the bane of IFRs in the U.S., epitomized by the Clinton administration shut down of EBR II.
General Atomics in San Diego is also developing a fast reactor, called the Energy Multiplier Module, which it intends to sell in small sizes as a source of industrial heat and for electricity. China is developing IFRs and could rely on them heavily for CO2-free source of electricity by 2050, according to the World Nuclear Association. France, Russia and India also have fast reactor programs.
Branson and Gates might expect to compete against yet another familiar billionaire in the nuclear business. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has invested in General Fusion, a Burnaby, Canada company that hopes to commercialize a nuclear fusion machine.
Meanwhile, keep an eye out for Virgin Nuclear. Maybe one day you'll be able to buy nuclear electricity in exchange for air miles.
Images: Branson from Richard Burdett. EBR II from Argonne National Laboratory West. Both via Wikimedia. Hansen and policeman grabbed from Hansen's TED video presentation, March 2012 via YouTube.
More alternative nuclear on SmartPlanet
- Using nuclear waste, PRISM reactor could power UK for 500 years
- Steel Mill mulls thorium nuclear reactor for process heat
- Westinghouse enters U.S.-China nuclear collaboration
- U.S. partners with China on new nuclear
- The Thorium Lord
- Safe nuclear: Japanese utility elaborates on thorium plans
- New Jersey fusion firm ratchets up Iranian collaboration
- Safe nuclear: UK eyes thorium
- Safe nuclear: Let the thorium debate begin
- Safe nuclear: India’s thorium reactor
- Fukushima’s lesson: ‘Alternative’ nuclear, not ‘no’ nuclear
- Why safe nuclear will rely on rare earth minerals
- Meet the future of nuclear power: 8 guys in China
- How nuclear will make oil greener
- The new face of safe nuclear
An all-in-one alternative nuclear guide:
Jul 22, 2012
There is a design, based upon the Argonne Labs IFR, a 100 MW breeder reactor that runs at 90% capacity factor, for 20 years, on 20.7 tonnes of uranium at less than 17% enrichment. The fuel cartridge only needs attention at the end of that time, a simple replacement.Then by exchanging un-enriched uranium for fission products making up 8% of its total mass of the removed cartridge, a refurbished fuel cartridge is made. I looked up the IEER website. They describe themselves as committed to renewable and nuclear-free energy. I think that tells us not to regard their findings as entirely reliable without unbiassed confirmation, such as the actual safety records of nuclear power versus oil, coal, even hydro. It has been calculated that per gigawatt-hour, putting PV cells on rooftops causes more deaths than nuclear reactors. The Monju reactor was a fast breeder, but not related to the IFR.
Why? why why why why why??????? The man is willing to risk his considerable fortune to develop a safer, cheaper nuclear power! The DOE is also refusing to consider thorium. This is a failure of leadership.
A thorium-based molten salt reactor system, will be the game changer, way before any commercially fusion reactor technology is available and most certainly before IFRs.
âWe need to create incentives and a tax structure that encourages clean energy investment. Companies, even those not working in environment, should invest just 1 percent into clean energy.â Sir Richard Branson 2006 Keynote luncheon at CGI (Clinton Global Initiative) Virgin Atlantic 2012 : is taking the EU to court to STOP their action on climate. Virgin offer no alternative, they're not making the emissions right some other way, they're just fighting for the power to use our atmosphere like an open sewer. Because some of their international jet-set passengers might not like the CO2 fees. Poor babies. It seems that having gone to CGI, and said all the right things, when he has the smallest risk of the smallest impact to just part of his business he fights against everything he âcommitted toâ. The Carbon War Room (previously called Creating Carbon Wealth) has done nothing but create greenwashing for Branson - while maybe getting other people to come up the wealth making ideas for him. There's nothing wrong with that - except that his businesses are actually trying to *stop* the EU from reducing CO2 emissions. He could be found in front of any available mic in Rio 20+ spouting platitudes about being green and 'radically' changing business. Then gave a bunch of awards to some kids who aren't going to change anything worth a damn for the next 10 years. But they look nice in photos. Meanwhile GE (for example) IS radically changing business. And Virgin are radically digging in their heels and crying foul. Maybe ETS needs to be better but you donât sit on your ass making speeches about how it's time to get moving and then try to stop the only people actually getting moving. Stop the speeches and get out of our way. We have a planet to fix.
It's sad to see this coming back AGAIN after decades upon decades of multi-million (billion) dollar failures from every country that has tried to make breeder reactors. If it seems too good to be true, then it is. Every kind of fission system we've succeeded or failed at operating has been inherently dangerous, expensive, and tragically short-sighted. It shares those qualities with all the other dig-and-burn power sources.
Nuclear power as CO2-free source of energy can be excellent, but it can be better with more initiatives to develop aneutronic fusion in order to have a really clean and safe energy source with no nuclear waste. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ro5-QYqqxzM
Frances has tried hard to build breeders and failed with the expensive Feonix and Superfeonix reactors and quite. Japan's Monju breeder was being constructed and tested for over 2 decades and has only produced 1 hour of power. In Dec 1995 and Aug 2010 it had two different accident (one of them a fire), which have basically killed the project. Russia's military and secret breeder program seems to be closed down. There are currently no breeder reactors operating anywhere in the world despite tens of billions in prototypes and production models have been attempted. Breeders use liquid sodium coolant, which burns in air and explodes in water. This has lead many to call these types of reactors "inherently dangerous" See this document as to why breeders are still a proliferation risk. http://www.nirs.org/nukerelapse/background/ieerpyroprocessing5172001.txt Mr Branson says âAmerican companies would like to commercialize this technology and are prepared to begin building these reactors right away,â Obviously, this is hype. Mr Branson has been involved in both renewables initiatives (with Bill Clinton for $4 billion) and efficiency efforts. It is sad to see he has been duped by the failed technophilic dream of breeder reactors.
It grieves me, as a hard core liberal, that my own people seem to be as dogmatically stupid about nuclear physics and technology as the Far Wrong are about biology, geology, and astrophysics. If the USA, which has to its credit the elements americium, californium, berkelium, lawrencium, and even seaborgium, does not revive its pursuit of renewable energy in the field of nuclear power, China will probably return to its ancient role as master (or mistress?) of the world. They do not have our love of capitalist enterprise, which for deep expensive scientific research does not work. The incentives to secrecy and lawyering and PR are perverse.
BUT, the fact is that there was already, in 1986, an IFR that was already breeding its own replacement fuel, in April 1986, when its meltdown-immunity was deliberately tested. First the primary coolant pumps were stopped, and it shut itself down as designed, using the consequences of thermal expansion in metals. The same test was then run, but upon the secondary coolant circulation, the circuit that drive the electric generators. Again, complete success. This was just before the abject failure of the Chernobyl reactors, and the abominable secrecy that greatly worsened its impact upon the population. So, no, the IFR had reached a more advanced level of deplyment than the LFTR, in 1994, when the Sierra Club induced Clinton to cancel it. Both groups should have known better. But you are right about fusion. It's vastly more difficult than I thought it was, in 1960, when I decided computers were a better bet.
The European Union thinks that wind turbines, solar, and what --biomass? -- Carbon Sequestration? Tidal turbines? -- can reduce carbon emissions. It is not difficult to prove that they are WRONG. So I'd need to know more about how Branson argues that they are wrong about CO2 fees. If they're building wind turbines with the revenue, it's an utter waste. Similarly, the CGI - is that the same Clinton that canceled funding for the USA's IFR when it had a perfect record? -- cannot be expected to get anything right. GE, at least with their PRISM reactor, are the Good Guys. But they probably have divisions perfectly ready to build these damnable big wind turbines, which are totally unresponsive to demand. The 5 MW size needs a helicopter pad. Helicopters are about as un-green as you can get, short of Nixon running the air conditioner so he could have a wood fire in the White House. Nixon's administration, by the way, cut off funding for the liquid fuel Thorium-232 to U-233 design, because it wasn't much good for making bombs.
This country, the USA, has built three kinds of breeder reactors. One of them bred the plutonium for the bomb that destroyed Nagasaki. A more benevolent one, breeding fissile uranium from plutonium, ran for a couple of decades, until Nixon's administration decided that it wasn't much good for bomb manufacture. Htalk, your phrase"every country" is in error. I'm not sure just what level of success France had, with the Phenix, but I do know that terrorists attacked its successor, the Superphenix, without penetrating its peimeter. But the most recent abandonment of a successful breeder reactor program was in 1994, and the reactor that was abandoned had shown itself immune to the Chernobyl problem, as designed, eight years earlier, at the beginning of April 1986, the month o the Chernobyl meltdown. The most inherently dangerous energy production system is coal burning, but even hydro-electric dams take their toll of people. I strongly suspect that per gigawatt-year of prospective energy, the two breeder reactor programs that the USA has performed are remarkably good value. Very much better than the subsidies wasted on wind turbines. Even if we inflated the Integral Fast Reactor project's costs to 2013 dollars, I believe it would be less than the money spent on reviving the economy that Wall Street ruined.
Thank you Rbtwjohnson. I've been following aneutronic fusion and hadn't come across "Crossfire", the company featured in your link. Here are a few SmartPlanet stories on an aneutronic project at New Jersey's Lawrenceville Plasma Physics, which is working peacefully with Iran: http://www.smartplanet.com/blog/intelligent-energy/new-jersey-nuclear-fusion-firm-ratchets-up-iranian-collaboration/16400?tag=search-river http://www.smartplanet.com/blog/intelligent-energy/joint-us-iranian-nuclear-peace-plan-hatches/14547?tag=content;siu-container http://www.smartplanet.com/blog/intelligent-energy/fusion-breakthrough/14516?tag=mantle_skin;content I've also mentioned the work of another aneutronic company, Tri-Alpha, in other stories, and featured them in my Kachan & Co report (link at bottom of story above). They're based in Irvine, Calif., have Goldman Sachs money, and seem to like to portray themselves as a stealth company.
Yes, controlled fusion has the potential to solve all the world's energy problems but there's no telling when, or even if, controlled fusion will be technically feasible. Experiments put in more energy than they produce. Fast-neutron reactors are much farther along - they work, just not as well enough yet for large scale use.
Paxus calta is mistaken in his acceptance that the NIRS and IEER prove that pyroprocessing creates a nuclear proliferation risk. They take it as a basic assumption that the purpose of the IFR must inevitably be such a risk. That is the opposite of the truth. The fact is that the IFR's pyroprocessing was designed to obtain a reactor grade product of uranium and plutonium, in contrast to the process that operates upon uranium and plutonium oxides, and was originally intended by the AEC to produce bomb grade plutonium. But in any case, unless we find a replacement for the dwindling supplies of fossilized solar energy, human proliferation and a dearth of energy to support them is going to be the end of civilization. Use of the supernova energy entrapped in heavy fissile metals is the way to do this.
The US government supported for about 30 years a project to develop a Liquid Metal cooled, Fast neutron Breeder Reactor . It had no problems in that time, and a week before Chernobyl demonstrated its immunity to the meltdowns that have gathered such wildly exaggerated publicity -- compare with the Bhopal chemical spill, the unending oil tanker and oil well mishaps, and the incessant pollution of coal burning. The worst proliferaion risk in the world is the human birthrate, and if we do not find an alternative energy better than what the sun provides -- the technologies of the 18th century -- there will be a war of the starving against the merely hungry. It is apparently true that the USA has the most successful record in Fast Breeder reactor technology. But even in a classroom, you can keep sodium in a jar which covers it with unreactive oil. It is just as safe as nitric acid, Liquid sodium in a steel enclosure, at atmospheric pressure, is far safer than superheated water at high pressure in a steel pipe. The reason the dream has not succeeded yet is the ignorance of the populace, and their terror of all things nuclear, and the considerable industry of nuke-deniers. I suspect many of the latter are folk that began heroically as opponents of the damnable policy of nuclear weapon arsenals. The Cold War was abandoned essentially because of Mikhail Gorbachev's recognition of its stupidity. This left the anti-nuclear-weapons organizations with nobody to fight -- although neither US political party has opted for total nuclear disarmament. The plain fact is, that nuclear breeder technology is probably safer today than aircraft science was until the jet engine, and in any case less of a risk to the average citizen than the motor cars that he or his neighbors drive.
From the Wiki entry on Fast-neutron reactor: "Although some sodium-cooled fast reactors have operated safely (notably the SuperphÃ©nix), sodium problems can be prevented by using lead or molten chloride salts as a coolant" "Breeding, which is the primary advantage of fast over thermal reactors, may be accomplished with a thermal, light-water cooled & moderated system using very high enriched (~90%) uranium" "Gas-cooled fast reactors have been the subject of research as well"
"Breeders use liquid sodium coolant, which burns in air and explodes in water. This has lead many to call these types of reactors "inherently dangerous"" Please provide names of the "many" and their areas of expertise.