NRDC's Tom Cochran Assesses Breeder Prospects

Tom Cochran, a PhD particle physicist and lifelong staff member of the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington, D.C., wrote a book about breeder reactors in 1974 that had considerable influence. At the time, the U.S. breeder program was the biggest single R&D item in the Federal budget; Cochran’s book, commissioned by Resources for the Future, took a highly critical look at estimated costs and projected engineering performance for fast reactors. In April 1977, newly elected president Jimmy Carter suspended plans to build a demonstration breeder at Clinch River, Tennessee, and along with it plans to introduce commercial reprocessing of spent nuclear fuels.

Despite setbacks in virtually all other breeder development programs, a recent MIT report continues to envision a future in which breeders might play a big part. Cochran comments as follows:

MIT basically got it right when projecting future uranium costs, though they didn't also take into account that enrichment costs will go down. The bottom line is that nuclear fuel costs will not move significantly in the next 100 years from where they are today.

Their conclusion, being from a university heavily engaged in research, is that this leaves lots of time to do all kinds of research on all kinds of things. My conclusion is that we don't need to do more research on alternative fuel cycles at this time. What we need to focus on is bringing down the capital costs of standard light water reactors. Historically, however, the government has boxed itself in by funding primarily research on the back end of the fuel cycle--spent fuel processing and nuclear waste disposal--and technologies relying on alternative fuel cycles, including the fast reactor.

Why has the industry had so little success in the thirty years since Three Mile Island in getting reactor costs down?

Nuclear energy is risky and complicated, and so you have to spend a great deal of money to make it safe and efficient. So, contrary to the industry’s expectations that economies of scale would produce savings, costs have gone up, at least in the United States. The cost trend of nuclear plants built in South Korea appears to be an exception at least in recent years.

You wrote the book on the liquid-meter fast breeder reactor. Can’t one make a case that the technology has proved to be a failure, given that every country that’s seriously pursued it has run into serious problems?

Yes, breeder development efforts were the priority energy research programs in the United States, France and Japan. Yet the programs failed in these countries, as well as in the United Kingdom, Germany, and--arguably--Russia, because they never closed the fuel cycle.

You mean Russia never extracted plutonium from breeders to serve as fresh breeder fuel, to realize the dream of “infinite” nuclear fuel supplies?

Correct. Rather than close the fuel cycle, Russia just fueled its breeders with highly enriched uranium. But that makes no sense. Basically, if you’re going to use uranium as fuel, you should build a thermal reactor [like an LWR], because the fission cross section is highest when the neutrons are moving slowly—at thermal energies. If you’re going to burn plutonium then you want a fast reactor because the plutonium fission cross section is higher when the neutrons are moving fastest. By the way, let’s not forget the nuclear navies of  the United States and the Soviet Union. Admiral Rickover built a prototype breeder for his second nuclear submarine, but decided it wasn’t a good idea even before sea trials began. In 1956 or ‘57 he concluded breeders were expensive to build, complex to operate, susceptible to prolonged shutdown as a result of even minor malfunctions, and difficult and time consuming to repair. That pretty well sums up the subsequent history of liquid metal fast reactor development efforts. The Soviet effort to deploy lead-bismuth cooled fast reactors in alfa-class submarines was also short-lived.

Given that sorry history, is there any real basis for projecting breeder costs 25, 50 or 100 years from now?

I don’t think so. When people engage in  R&D, and it becomes clear that the direction they’re taking isn't working and that it’s time to strike a new course, they often are the last ones to get the message. They always think, “If we just do a little more research, the next  time it will work.”

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