Congress is about to begin again what has become an annual ritual during the Carter administration: a debate on the desirability of taking the next step toward the commercialization of the breeder reactor. This next step would involve the construction of a less-than-full-scale demonstration power plant -- either the one whose components are now being delivered to a warehouse near a proposed site on the Clinch River in Tennessee or a larger demonstration plant that might be built in either Idaho or Washington.
To its advocates, the breeder represents and insurance policy against possible shortages of uranium for nuclear-electric generating plants in the next century. To its opponents, it represents a menace in that the associated huge stockpiles of plutonium would open an easy path to nuclear weapons.
Breeders could not make a significant contribution to the U.S. energy supply during this century, and they would be deployed at first only in the major industrialized nations, for which technological barriers are not a significant obstacle to the acquisition of nuclear weapons. Why, therefore, is there such a feeling of anxiety among breeder opponents about the movement toward commercialization of this technology in the next few years?
It is because the commitment to the breeder as s uranium insurance policy for the next century requires early commitments to nuclear fuel reprocessing and thus legitimizes the dangerous game of playing with plutonium today. Already France, Britain, Japan, West Germany, India, Pakistan, Argentina and Brazil, among other nations, have justified embarking on nuclear fuel reprocessing for the purpose of plutonium recovery by citing the necessity to become familiar with the technologies that would be involved in the breeder fuel cycle.
At first sight it would seem preposterous that breeder developments in the remote furure could be used to justify plutonium-recovery activities now. Consider, however, the implications of using the breeder as an insurance policy against the possibility of a U.S. uranium-supply shortage in 2020.
To reduce uranium consumption significantly with breeders by 2020, a substantial fraction of U.S. nuclear plants would have to be breeders by that date -- perhaps 100 reactors costing more than $100 billion. Such a program would require that the first commercial power plant become operational perhaps 20 years earlier, which would mean that construction on this plant and the associated plutonium fuel cycle facilities would have to begin around 1990. Breeder advocates argue, therefore, that it is necessary to start working out the bugs in the plutonium fuel cycle now.
The obvious alternative to this adsurd situation, in which concerns abut a uranium-supply crisis in the next century are fueling a nuclear weapons proliferation crisis today, is to look to alternative energy technologies.
It is fortunate, therefore, that there exists at least one uranium-conserving nuclear strategy that involves neither the breeder nor an early commitment to the reprocessing of spent reactor fuel.
This alternative is based on advanced converter reactors, which can be operated effectively either on "oncethrough" fuel eycles (which do not require reprocessing of spent fuel) or on "closed" fuel cycles (which do). When operated on once-through fuel cycles, such reactors could be about twice as uranium-efficient as today's light water reactors. And deployment of advanced converter reactors could offer as good an insurance policy as deployment of breeders against uranium shortages in the middle of the next century. If real uranium shortages began to develop, advanced converters could be shifted rapidly to operation on highly uranium-efficient closed fuel cycles. Thus, in an advanced converter reactor strategy, unlike a breeder strategy, reprocessing technologies would not be needed until well after reactor deployment had begun -- if ever.
Advanced coverter reactors already exist in the form of the heavy water reactor, which has been commercialized by Canada, and the high temperature gas-cooled reacor, which has been developed both in the United States and in West Germany. It could well turn out, however, that the easiest route for the United States to advanced converters would be through an evolutionary development of the light water reactor. The light water uranium breeder technology developed by Adm. Hyman Rickover's reactor group may prove to be very useful in this connection. Such an evolutionary strategy would certainly be much less risky technologically and economically than the deployment of the sodium cooled breeder reactor and its associated plutonium fuel cycle facilities.
It is necessary, therefore, to reorient the U.S. nuclear research and development program toward advanced converter reactors. It has become clear from the experience of the last few years that this won't be easy. Many careers in the Department of Energy, the muclear industry and the utilities have been built in the expectation of an energy future dominated by the breeder.
But experience giver us some hope of being able to overcome the present institutional inertia. In 1971, our nation changed the direction of its civilian aircraft development program. Few would argue today that the United States should have chosen ot continue the SST competition with the French, British and Soviets instead of commercializing the much more economical and environmentally benign jumbo jets.
In the last decade the United States convinced the rest of the world that the future of nuclear power lay with the plutonium fuel cycle. The United States now has the responsibility of shwoing the world that there is an alternative, safer path.