Sodium Fast Reactor- Solution to Nuke Waste?

Esquire had an article about the sodium fast reactor. Basically, it uses nuclear waste and could replace all coal power plants in the next few decades.


Sounds good, but need more details. Shuts itself down in the event of an accident? What happens if the sodium gets loose?

Breeder reactors

Yes, really.

Most reactors in existence today are uranium-fueled thermal neutron reactors. Besides the waste problem, another disadvantage of uranium-fueled reactors is that there only enough known uranium reserves to last a few hundred years.

Breeder reactors (including liquid-metal fast breeder reactors) actually produce more fuel than they use. They can also be fueled with reprocessed nuclear waste. Unfortunately, the fuel produced in breeder reactors is plutonium, which raises nuclear-weapon proliferation concerns. Nevertheless, the attraction of breeder reactors is that, properly developed, they would utilize a fuel economy that is sustainable for thousands of years, all with no greenhouse gas production.

Because of the proliferation concerns and the strident objections from environmentalists regarding nuclear power in general, the prototype Clinch River Breeder Reactor Project was opposed by President Carter and finally killed by Congress in 1983. President Carter opposed all breeder reactor development because of proliferation concerns.

Personal anecdote: I wrote a paper and gave a speech in high school advocating for nuclear power and particularly for breeder reactors back in 1985. At the time, before we were even discussing greenhouse gases, I advocated for nuclear power for environmental reasons. I think that one of the biggest mistakes environmental activists ever made was to oppose nuclear power.


According to this discussion, we are already at or past peak production of uranium reserves. There’s been ample discussion of peak oil here and elsewhere but little about peak uranium.

As I understand it, waste is a much bigger issue that fuel costs right now and for the immediate future. According to previous threads on this topic, it is possible to extract uranium from seawater at roughly ten times the cost of extraction from ore, and there is enough to last for thousands of years. If that isn’t true, we could turn to the thorium fuel cycle.

FWIW, liberal pantywastes didn’t kill breeder reactors, economics did. It is cheaper currently to have a LWR to such a degree that the industry considers breeder reactors to be a non-starter. Then you have proliferation concerns on top of that.

Stranger on a Train turned me on to the concept of hybrid fission fusion reactors where the fusion reactor (which cannot sustain itself) is used as a neutron source to burn a subcritical pile of fuel. If I understand it, you could completely burn a pile down to lead with such a thing and mix in waste from LWRs on top of that. It would really be badass if you could use high temperature helium gas to drive a turbine in a single loop. As you can see, I am still geeking out about this. Perhaps Stranger will pop in and give us the straight dope.


In hindsight you may be right, but remember that in the late 70’s the Love canal was making the news (and Three Mile Island would soon be). Given that situation, a breeder reactor was going to be a hard sell.

Nuclear (fission) power is not without its significant pollution problems as well, though most of this is in the fuel production and purification cycle which may be somewhat mitigated by the use of nuclear fuel residue and downblended weapon-grade material. The problem with using a sodium coolant is its high reactivity, which turned out to be a problem in the reactors that the US Navy operated; even 304L stainless steel and similar grades will corrode upon exposure to high temperature liquid sodium, and once it escapes it will react with environmental substances, particularly water. Nuclear fission does alleviate dependence upon largely foreign petroleum sources and carbon emissions, but it is hardly a panacea for pollution, as can be attested by people who have worked or lived near the Hanford site, the Rocky Flats plant, the Savannah River site, et cetera.

Personally I think hybrid subcritical fission-fusion technology is the best way of disposing of fuel waste and weapon grade material in a profitable way. But this technology is still under development.


And there was Chernobyl not too much later. And people were already twitchy about nuclear anything because of the Cold War and its overarching nuclear standoff. (I really think now that the Cold War had a strong effect on the psychology of the situation.) And add that nuclear reactors were extremely expensive and no-one wanted them to be run incompetently, it was no surprise that people flinched away from nukes.

And yet people have not generally had any issues with the hundreds of naval nuclear power plants that have been operated continuously for over 50 years.

On my first day at Naval Nuclear Power School, the commanding officer of the school mentioned anecdotally a situation some years ago where many people in southern California drove out to some deserted part of the desert to protest the construction of some commercial nuclear power plant, then went back to the homes in San Diego, with its dozens of nuclear-powered submarines and ships tied up at the Navy base there.

The point of his story was that the public generally trusts the U.S. Navy to operate its many nuclear power plants competently and safely.

I think that might be more a sign of ignorance than trust. The Navy doesn’t exactly advertise the locations of all its nuclear-powered ships, so even if folks know they exist, they can delude themselves into thinking they’re not in their back yard.

Environmentalists are scapegoats. Blame financial markets, which is to say blame rational businessmen. There was never an official moratorium on nuclear power plants. And yet they were canceled left and right. This occurred internationally.

Simply put, nuclear power is expensive. It never would have existed in the US without massive federal subsidies. And even with them, they were still pricey.

That said, it might make sense today to a limited extent, though there are a number of cheaper methods of cutting CO2 emissions.

Although I believe that many activists were handling nuclear power with reflex reaction, I don’t believe that opposition was necessarily bad.

Nuclear safety is very poor, and we still have no idea how to handle waste cleanup. If we put together a program like they did in France: Unified design, better oversight, etc., I would agree that maybe nuclear plants could be environmentally friendly.

However, plants were a hodgepodge of designs, they never proved efficient, and the waste problem remains unsolved. Breeder reactors actually produce fuel that can be used for nuclear weapons. Plus, they are still not cost effective.

Nuclear power could help eliminate coal plants, but they need a serious overhaul in order to be efficient. Plus, we need to figure out what to do about the waste.

My first day of Naval Nuclear Power School was a week after Chernobyl. What an interesting backdrop for the program that was. Perhaps that’s why my views on the subject are slightly more conservative (though not totally anti-nuke).

What is meant by this?

How many people have died and/or been sickened by nuclear power?

How many people have died and/or been sickened by coal power?

“…where can we find nuclear wessels?”

Bwaaa ha ha ha ha!

Safety isn’t poor, and we have perfectly adequate means of dealing with the waste. The problems are political not technical.

You may be thinking of nuclear weapons, whose the presence the Navy is officially coy about. At sea, of course, their exact positions are unadvertised and for all I know, classified, but a Nimitz-class carrier would be hard to miss in port.


So the consensus seems to be that the gist of the article, that we could plop in the smaller fast reactors into existing coal plants and burn spent nuclear fuel and old warheads, is possible, but probably too expensive.

In the article, it says that conventional nuclear plants (I guess LWR) can only use uranium to 90% purity IIRC. What about the fast breeder reactor? Can it use up all the uranium? Its byproduct is more fuel and no waste?