The Cultural Contradictions of Environmentalism: Fast Breeder Reactor Edition


MHI Fast Breeder Reactor

I was recently at a conference on global warming where I had to read James Gustave Speth's environmentalist manifesto Red Sky at Morning: America and the Global Environmental Crisis. It's an amazingly reactionary and incoherent book. One passage that particularly irritated me dealt with fast breeder reactors. These are nuclear power plants that can produce more fuel (about 30 percent more) than they use. We would never have to mine a single pound more of uranium to produce electricity. Admittedly, this also means that fuel from the reactors can be diverted and used to produce nuclear weapons.

In any case, Speth takes a bit of credit for stopping the development of fast breeder reactors in the 1970s when he filed a lawsuit against the program as a young attorney for the activist group, the Natural Resources Defense Council. As he notes:

The AEC's program to commercialize the breeder was extremely controversial; it aimed to have two hundred breeder reactors operating commercially in the United States by 2000…The breeder reactor story had a happy ending…[because] it was ultimately halted by President Carter and the Congress.

Also in his book, Speth asserts:

The biggest threat to our environment is global climate disruption, and the greatest problem in that context is America's energy use and the policies that undergird it.

So here's the aggravating aspect of Speth's preening self-congratulation about being part of the effort to stop the commercialization of breeder reactors: in an alternative universe in which 200 reactors come online, U.S. greenhouse gas emissions would be about 35 percent lower than they currently are. In other words, the reactors that Speth opposed could have been a huge part of the solution to what Speth claims is humanity's "biggest threat." Like I said, really annoying.

NEXT: The Doers vs. The "Thinkers"

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  1. what Speth claims is humanity’s “biggest threat.”

    But he doesn’t believe what he claims, so it’s fine.

  2. Red Sky at Morning: America and the Global Environmental Criris

    I’m more concerned with H&R’s typo criris.

  3. Ron, it’s a religion, so it doesn’t have to make sense.

  4. @: Criris over! I mean “Crisis over!” 😉

    1. Crisis re-engaged!


  5. We would never have to mine a single pound more of uranium to produce electricity.

    Yes we would, because a breeder reactor produces a different kind of fuel than it uses. There ain’t no such thing as free energy.

    1. Actually, the fuel for a breeder is typically Plutonium and the fertile nuclide is U-238 which becomes Pu when it captures a neutron. The statement is still a bit misleading as the reactor still needs U-238, but that occurs in abundance. There are also some safety and control issues for these types of reactors. The more plausible scenario is to use fast spectrum reactors to transmute the waste from traditional thermal reactors.

      1. Thank you Brian. U-235 is what is commonly used for fuel in commercial reactors. Enriched…

        It’s been 30 years since my Nuc days, but I assume that is still the case. I know that there are quite a few next-gen designs, but my assumption is that fuel load has remained constant.

  6. The ultimate objective is not to reduce greenhouse gases, it’s to make us change our lifestyle.I think these people have some utopian vision of us living simply and close to nature. Last I checked that is a pretty brutal and uncomfortable way of living.

    1. Right. Surely nothing could go wrong in trying to feed and clothe a planet with 6.8B people without any division of labor.

    2. Exactly. The opposition to nuclear makes it blindly obvious that they either a) don’t think global warming is as bad as they claim, or b) don’t want us to use refrigeration and air conditioning.

      1. Er … blindingly obvious

      2. Only if nuclear power was the only possible means by which society may effectively reduce carbon outlays.

        1. In the time frame that is being discussed in this post, no, there were no alternatives. There is no getting around the truth that without that irrational hysteria demanding a halt to nuclear energy development by the side that claims to be GREEN we would already have a GREENER world.

        2. Someday solar and wind may be cheap enough to provide power people want that nuclear can now. So what is wrong with using nuclear for the next few decades or century?

          But providing the power people want is not the objective is it? We are lectured that we should be using less power. And the poor in other countries are lectured they should not use more than they do.

        3. Well, it IS.

      3. Or they were looking forward to a massive die-off of people that would reduce the human population to what they think would be a “sustainable” level.

    3. Solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

  7. I grew up around the Idaho National Engineering Lab, where Fast-Breeders were played with considerably. It is indeed frustrating that these things haven’t been developed.

    On a side-note – in case any of you didn’t know – there was some hilarious hijinks in the mid-90’s with the lab’s main contractor (EG&G then, Bechtel now). The company sold a complete nuclear-fuel reprocessing lab to a local used-car dealer/scrap metal buyer in Pocatello for less than a quarter million bucks. Mucho bureaucratic antics ensued when the guy called and told Uncle Sam what he had just bought. They didn’t take him seriously until the Indian Government was offering the guy $millions$ for the reprocessing facility and the Wall Street Journal put the flap on their front page.

    I always think of that incident when we get huffy chastising the Russians or whomever about their “lax nuclear security.”


  8. To be fair, it seems that in theory, one could recognize the environmental benefit of nuclear power in general and object specifically to fast breeder reactors because of the possibility of excess fuel contributing to nuclear proliferation. Of course, this would likely manifest itself in both objecting to fast breeder reactors AND championing traditional (slow?) reactors. Shall I go out on a limb and assume this was not the case with Mr. Speth?

    1. Out on a limb. I dont think you even need to climb the tree.

  9. Fast breeder reactors are good, however we would still need to mine Uranium. However it would expent our supply for thousands of years. Fast breeders trun U-238 (U-235 is the good stuff)into plutonium-239, however both U and Pu are consumed in the end.

  10. Brandybuck: Hmmm. My (not too deep) understanding is that IFRs can transform U-238 into plutonium which can be used as fuel, i.e., we have plenty of depleted uranium laying around that could be used for make fuel. In addition, the IFRs can burn up what is now called nuclear waste, but could become nuclear fuel.

    1. Depleted uranium can’t be used to make nuclear fuel unless you have a neutron source, i.e. a nuclear reactor. The term “depleted uranium” is just a snazzy word for the tailings left over from whatever enrichment process utilized to recover the naughty U235.

      You can configure reactors to crank out Pu-240 (one extra neutron capture past Pu-239) by just burning on the fuel rods longer. Spent commercial fuel usually contains a high proportion of Pu-240 in the Pu assay because commercial operators suck every watt they can out of the fuel rod. Pu-240 has too active a spontaneous fission rate to be practical for a nuclear weapon (assembly time too short for efficient nuclear combustion, given the fast initiation) and is a gamma emitter to boot, making it a real bitch to handle compared to Pu-239.

      Its that reason that makes graphite-core (North Korea’s naughty reactor) and CANDU reactors (India’s breakout CIRRUS reactor) such proliferation problems, because you can pull rods and such without shutting down the whole reactor and tearing down the core.

    2. Ron: Fast reactors (which include the IFR) burn up actinides (Plutonium, Americium & Curium, Neptunium), and potentially some long-lived fission products (Tc-99 and I-129, for example). We would still have waste to deal with (in terms of fission products), but much of what constitutes the longest-lived isotopes could be theoretically transmuted in a fast reactor.

      Right now, actinides are a major limiting factor in waste disposal – treat those, and you dramatically shorten the storage time required for waste products. But you do remove most of the fission products from the fast reactor fuel; between cycles, reprocessing (either aqueous, or more likely, pyroprocessing) would be required.

      However, this raises another irony – if fast reactors had actually gotten off the ground, another environmentalist bane of nuclear energy would be averted. Transmuting trans-uranics in a fast reactor and handling LLFP’s separately basically lets us take care of waste on the timescale of hundreds to a few thousand years, rather than tens of thousands, and would dramatically reduce the total volume of waste.

  11. To use the current waste (slury) would take some technology advances. Mining U will still be needed, although cut back considerably.

    1. Gentlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the technology. We can make him better than he was before. Better, stronger, faster.

      We do have the technology. France uses the PUREX process right now for plutonium extraction for MOX fuel (re-burn of plutonium in a once-through light-water reactor). Theoretically, extraction of other components can be done through other solvent processes. It’s not so much of a technology question as it is scaling up lab processes into industrial ones.

  12. I don’t know, Ron. In retrospect especially, it seems downright criminal. Annoying seems a rather forgiving term considering the current “biggest threat” to society is AGW.

    1. Certainly deserving of a no-knock raid. I mean, the guy helped MURDER Gaia!

      er….i mean he sold weed to Gaia.

      There that should do it.

      1. Or he got Gaia drunk on champagne and high on ‘ludes and raped her up the butt when she was just 13.

        No, wait…

        1. You win. Raping Mother Earth would totally be the charge involved.

  13. I’m pretty sure DU isn’t nearly as useful as a fuel, even in a breeder, but my understanding isn’t very deep either.

    1. Actually, Canada’s CANDU reactors use a heavy-water moderated reactor with natural U as fuel, and South Korea’s DUPIC cycle uses DU (from PWR irradiation) in a CANDU reactor. So, it can be used. It’s just a question of efficiency.

  14. But Ron, the international efforts on nuclear non-proliferation have succeeded beyond our wildest dreams.

    Oh, wait

    1. Saudi, the UAE and Oman are “suspected? I can understand Saudi, since they’ve been materially threatened by Iraq AND Iran at various times.

      However, what I know of the UAE’s plans, they involve working with the US on civilian technology. They’re decades from weaponizing anything, unless someone is literally going to give them weapons fully-formed.

      Oman’s inclusion in that group completely beggars belief.

      1. …and of course Israel has threatened Saudi. Sheesh.

        Have I ever mentioned how much I hate threaded comments?

  15. The biggest threat to our environment is global climate disruption today’s liberal topic of the week, and the greatest problem in that context is America’s energy use lack of regulation and the policies that undergird it the Bill of Rights/Constitution.

  16. “The ultimate objective is not to reduce greenhouse gases, it’s to make us change our lifestyle.I think these people have some utopian vision of us living simply and close to nature. Last I checked that is a pretty brutal and uncomfortable way of living.”

    No. Think Eloi from The Time Machine. They just sat around peacefully, draped in white robes. Waiting to be eaten.


  17. Yo, fuck Jimmy Speth.

  18. J sub D

    You mean you don’t want Hugo Chavez to have a nuke?

  19. The biggest threat to our environment is global climate disruption, and the greatest problem in that context is America’s energy use and the policies that undergird it.

    It makes sense if you read closely. Speth’s biggest objection isn’t fossil fuels or global warming. His biggest objection is people enjoying the benefits of electricity. It’s sadism pure and simple.

    1. It’s sadism pure and simple.

      Some people get their jollies by whipping/beating a masochist. Kinda scary but mostly harmless.

      Then there are those who want to torment every person in the country/world.

  20. I’m still waiting for opponents of nuclear energy to protest Ahmadinejad.

  21. You mean you don’t want Hugo Chavez to have a nuke?

    Depends on how its delivered to him, I would say.

    I keed, I keed!

    1. “I’ve finished packing your suitcases Mr. Chavez.”


  22. No trucks from Mexico, no new trade agreements, a sweet deal for the United Auto Workers at GM and Chrysler, tariffs on Chinese tires, and now Big Labor has another demand of the Obama Administration: Overturn 75 years of labor policy to sandbag Delta Airlines and unionize transportation workers. Will it get that too?

    The latest looming political favor features the National Mediation Board, the federal agency established in 1934 under the Railway Labor Act to oversee labor relations in the air and rail industries. A department of the AFL-CIO last month sent a letter demanding that the board tear up longstanding rules requiring that a majority of all airline or rail workers vote in favor of union representation to win union certification.

    The AFL-CIO instead wants a “minority rule,” requiring only a majority of the employees who actually vote. Under current rules, if an airline has 10,000 nonunion flight attendants, 5,001 must vote yes to unionize. Under the union proposal if only 2,000 of 10,000 vote, and 1,001 vote yes, all 10,000 become subject to unionization.…..34894.html

  23. I don’t understand, what about conservation of energy?

    1. When the Greens take over Congress they’ll repeak it.

  24. What’s the difference between unions and organized crime?

    I don’t know either.

  25. Depends on how its delivered to him, I would say.

    I keed, I keed!

    I know the feeling. Chavez makes imperialism and CIA SOP very tempting though in principle I would oppose those things.

    1. It’s only imperialism if we take over. If he just has an “accident” but we let the Venezualans rule themselves, it’s only a slight nudging of the prime directive.

  26. This is a key test of seriousness, I believe. Anyone who believes global warming is one of our biggest threats and opposes nuclear power is simply not being serious at all. Nuclear power is the fastest, safest (how many French have died from nuclear power since they went all out for it?) and most certain path to reducing greenhouse emissions. If global warming is the serious threat they say, then we should be building these things at a breakneck pace.

    Also, anyone who has spent time looking out their window as they fly over Nevada knows that there is more than enough room to store all of our nuclear waste.

    1. BUT BUT BUT, we can’t spoil pristine deserts with nuclear waste and solar panels.

  27. “I think these people have some vision of us living simply and close to nature.”

    That they do. It’s an eco-religion, dominated not by engineers or scientists but by eco-shamans shaking their rattles at the problems we face. Why anyone would think natural=good has always mystified me. Cholera, after all, is natural. And 100% organic.

  28. This is a test of your skepticism about climate alarmism too. Why wouldn’t we just burn the massive amount of coal we have? Why tempt fate with nuclear proliferation?

    1. You don’t have to disbelieve in AGW (or at least not believe it has been proven) to be against massive pollution. No one wants to return to the centuries previous or look like China does now. It’s two separate issues.

      1. We know how to take the sulfates and particulates out of the emissions from coal power plants cheaply and efficiently. Or were you referring to something else?

        1. “Cheaply and Efficiently”, i’m not sure on that one.

          Electrostatic or Steam Scrubbers don’t run off good-wishes and unicorn farts.

  29. You don’t have to disbelieve in AGW (or at least not believe it has been proven) to be against massive pollution.

    Of course, CO2 is only a “pollutant” if you believe in catastrophic AGW, so there’s that.

  30. CO2, food for plant life, which increases its growth rates, and its resistance to drought, is absolutely a pollutant. I mean, who’d want plants and trees taking over?

    I agree with the point made earlier that this is not simply annoying, it’s downright maddening. Not because of this one person so much, but because so many people would applaud him. It disgusts me that so many people believe so thoroughly in AGW, and yet are so vehemently opposed to the one thing we have available that could solve the alleged problem.

  31. J sub D

    You mean you don’t want Hugo Chavez to have a nuke?

    Short of an invasion, what could we do to stop him? Fucking N. Korea managed to build a nuke, why can’t San Salvador if they wish?

    That fucking genie ain’t going back in the bottle and basing energy policy on trying force it is just plain stupid.

  32. Not just the use for photosynthesis. There’s a whole market emerging for CO2 uses, especially in the super-critical state. Coffee decaffeination, Supramics (no, they’re not Irish), working wluid in heat exchangers, material and pharmaceutical processing, improved recovery for oil drilling, and more.

    As these markets expand CO2 can become a valuable resource instead of a waste product.

  33. I have no problem with nukes. Build one in my backyard, even. Right across the street would be just fine.

    My only caveat is that the nuclear industry needs no more subsidies. If they can’t stand on their own two feet after hundreds of billions of subsidies, that’s their own damned problem.

    1. Let’s remove the bizarre, arbitrary, and capricious regulatory environment too.

  34. The Navy authorized more research money for Polywell fusor research: This is a fusion reaction approach that may very well result in net-positive power generation before Tokamaks and all the exotic research that has been going on for decades at the cost of billions of dollars. We should know whether this path takes us anywhere useful inside of 18 months. If the news is good, we won’t need breeder reactors, fission power plants, or other politically incorrect, high-tech sources of power. The specific reaction that Navy money is paying to study uses common boron and hydrogen, producing electrons and helium. Good luck to the researchers. Tick-tock.

  35. If fusion becomes a reality, environmental activists will have to invent a way to oppose it. Their greatest nightmare is an infinite source of clean energy. It would kill their reason for being- which is reducing human consumption to levels that assuage their native guilt… while making them the heroes of their tragedy (and hence not subject to the prescription it goes without saying).

    1. I’ll bet a year’s pay that the enviros already have a plan-of-attack against these fuel-cell cars they say they want us to drive.

      After all, fuel cells liberate electrons from H2 and O2, producing H2O vapor in the process…

      And, after all, H2O vapor is a greenhouse gas….

      Dateline: April, 2050: US EPA Declares H2O A Pollutant, Proposes Emission Targets

  36. “Johnny had 4 truckloads of plutonium.

    Johnny used 4 truckloads of plutonium to light New York City for a year.

    Then how many truckloads of plutonium did Johnny have?


    Ad from the glory days of Nuclear at the Edison Electric Institute.

  37. As Time was good enough to record for all posterity (or the attention span of an environmentalist, whichever is shorter), the biggest threat to mankind in the 70’s (other than Jimmy Carter- he was a short term nuisance in these considerations) was global cooling; the coming ice age.

    So you can suggest that this guy was a jerk for fighting against fast breeders, but really all he was doing was trying to ensure we had enough greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere so he could still party on a beach at the Cote d’Azur wearing a Speedo without having to also cover up with a parka.

    Thus endeth the sarcasm.

    An honest belief based on the known facts at the time doesn’t become a lie when future new facts show it to be wrong, merely a mistake. Maybe one worth prosecution, but still merely a mistake.

  38. “The ultimate objective is not to reduce greenhouse gases, it’s to make us change our lifestyle.”

    This seems to me to be a logical conclusion based on the notion that wealth is a physical thing (like Gold), with the properties of physical things. That is, it’s something that comes from somewhere, and is taken from there, leaving less behind. In this notion, if we extract wealth from the planet, we leave waste behind, wasting the planet.

    The alternative notion is that wealth can also be like music (or software, or books). It’s something that can be enjoyed without diminishing it. It can be copied almost independently of any physical existence.

  39. Breeder reactors have been economic failures whenever tried. Uranium is abundant, liquid metal coolants are problematic, and reprocessing costs more than it saves. We can stick for centuries with thermal reactors using a once-through fuel cycle if seawater uranium extraction is as cheap as projected.

  40. “the greatest problem in that context is America’s energy use and the policies that undergird it.”

    There is no contradiction if you understand the true foundation of enviromentalism, it can be summed up in three points.
    1. There are to many human beings on earth.
    2. the natural state of the human race is hunter gatherer.
    3. Technology all technology is evil.
    The environmental movement is not about finding better and cleaner ways of getting energy and improving the human condition, look at Speths statement above the problem is America’s energy use not how we get that energy, the global warming hoax is about stopping advancement not fixing a non-problem.

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