"The administration’s rush to develop and deploy GNEP is unnecessary and imprudent. Instead of committing to a program that may ultimately cost more than $700 billion, the administration should take a more reasoned approach and study whether there are less costly and more proliferation-resistant alternatives than a dramatic expansion of the nuclear industry for achieving the goalsof reducing reliance on fossil fuels and greenhouse gas emissions and finding a viable long-term storage option for the existing stockpiles of spent reactor fuel wastes."Now, I know that the authors of the report have a well-established bias against nuclear power. I also think that they're throwing the baby out with the bathwater- international cooperation on advanced fuel cycle research is a really good idea and should be encouraged. But they have a real point here, as the current GNEP proposals leave a lot to be desired.
In my view, the Achilles' heel of GNEP in its current form is its dependence on fast-neutron Advanced Burner Reactors (ABRs) to manage spent fuel from the current LWR fuel cycle. Currently, the ABR is conceived of as a sodium-cooled design. The history of sodium-cooled reactors has been disappointing, to say the least. The spectacular neutron economy they can theoretically achieve attracted many adherents. But generations of nuclear engineers have never been able to make these designs safe, reliable, and affordable simultaneously. The Russians have had the most success with the BN-600, but even it has been plagued by problems in its 28 years of operation.
There are also serious problems inherent in the projected GNEP fuel cycle- that it would use UREX+ reprocessing technology. This would require constant transport of fuel assemblies to and from LWRs, ABRs, and reprocessing plants. Honestly, I think that many of the problems faced by GNEP are probably inescapable in a system using solid-fuel reactors.
Fortunately, we have a technological alternative to the flawed vision of the current GNEP proposal. Molten-salt breeder reactors are, in my opinion, the best technology we have for facing the many challenges of the 21st century. Real-world experience with this reactor, while much less extensive than that with LMFBRs, was much more promising. The ability to use extremely common Th-232 as fuel eliminates the problems associated with the inefficiency of the current LWR fuel cycle. MSBRs can be safe, proliferation-resistant, and affordable. They can be built quickly on assembly lines from modular components. Most importantly, the MSBR is probably the only technology with the potential to ameliorate the climate crisis and provide the energy needed for third world economic development at the same time.
Unfortunately, it seems that hardly anyone outside of a relatively limited circle of nuclear enthusiasts knows about the spectacular potential of molten-salt reactors. This has to change, and soon. We need to get the message out- to the government, to the scientific community, and to the people at large.
On the first note, we need to find advocates for the technology in all areas of the government. Obviously, it would be ideal if the next president was an MSBR advocate, but it will be necessary in any case to have support in Congress- particularly in critical committees. Another vital area of support we need is from the leadership of the national laboratories. Infighting between them could cripple a major research program. My hope is that the less-than-optimal program GNEP now represents will be replaced by an aggressive research program into liquid-fuel reactor designs. In particular, the ABTR could be replaced by a prototype MSR along the lines of what Kirk Sorensen has been advocating.
If growing up in Oak Ridge taught me anything, it's that even brilliant scientists who work in a nuclear weapons laboratory aren't necessarily nuclear power experts. Most members of the scientific community know little about the differences between various reactor designs, fuel cycles, and so on. It is very important that figures such as James Hansen, who has stated publicly that "advanced nuclear power" is part of the solution to climate change, understand that the MSBR is the technology best suited to this role. I'm not sure what the best way to go about this is. Perhaps an article in a very prominent journal (the kind that's read outside of a single sub-discipline, like Nature) about the advantages of the MSBR for mitigating climate change? It could propose a concrete scenario for reactor construction and tabulate the overall environmental externalities for such an endeavor. Ideally, it would be as complete as reasonably possible, including cost estimates for all stages of the construction, operation, and decommissioning of the plants.
Finally, ordinary people need to learn about the MSBR. I believe that the popular appeal of the MSBR lies in its superior safety and waste management characteristics, as well as its potential to make the United States less dependent on foreign energy imports. The mind-boggling energy content of the Lehmi Pass thorium deposit could make an instructive talking point.
It would also be a good idea to prepare now for the inevitable criticism of the professional antinuclear crowd. I suspect that once they perceive the MSBR as a threat, they'll latch onto the lengthy and troubled decommissioning of the Molten Salt Reactor Experiment at ORNL as the easiest way to attack the technology. Advocates of molten-salt reactors need to have ready answers to questions about this issue. Perhaps the reactors could be designed to be broken down into modular components and then transported to some kind of dedicated decommissioning facility. I suppose it depends on many factors- decommissioning an MSBR constructed from carbon-carbon composites could be very different from decommissioning the MSRE has been.
In any case, tell your friends about the MSBR!