Interviews
Dr. Charles Till
Nuclear physicist and associate lab director at Argonne National Laboratory West in Idaho. He is co-developer of the Integral Fast Reactor, an inherently safe nuclear reactor with a closed fuel cycle.
Dr. Charles Till

Q: Talk about when you decided to go into nuclear power, and about the vision as it looked back then.

A: Oh, it was the field of the time. It was a field where you could be assured of doing something important, something for your time, is how I thought of it, that energy is the basis of our society, and nuclear energy was to be the way of the future.

Q: You saw this as an enormous benefit for mankind?

A: As a tremendous benefit for mankind, and that work, only the first work had been done on it.

Q: What was this benefit? Was it the amount of energy? Was it environmental aspects of the energy?

A: No. Remember, this was the late 1950s. The word "environment" was not even used much then, nor in fact really was the word "energy" much in the all encompassing sense that we use it now. It was, though, the unlimited amounts of energy. It wasn't the fact that nuclear, as I later came to believe, was also the best form of energy environmentally. But it was simply that the humankind is going to need vast amounts of energy in the future. Here was the way.

Q: Was recycling part of this dream?

A: Yes, of course it was ... If nuclear energy was to provide the amount of energy that the dream said it would, the vision said it would, then you'd have to recycle it in order to use the resource in effect over and over again.

Q: What do you mean when you say "close the fuel cycle"?

A: Simply that once the fuel has been used, and used to the maximum extent it can, which generally takes about three years, that you take it out and process it in a manner that allows you to take all of the useful elements out of it and recycle them back into the reactor bed. Simple as that.

Q: What is the concept of the Integral Fast Reactor (IFR), and how [does] it address the issue of waste and of using energy and so forth?

A: Well, the IFR was a concept that we worked on for some ten years. And it was an outgrowth really of the studies that were caused by the Carter administration in the late '70s, where we looked at all the various kinds of reactors, types of fuel, processes for dealing with the waste, and so on. And it became obvious to us that one could put a total reactor concept together that would at the same time give you safety of a kind that reactors today don't have, that would allow complete recycling of the fuel, and thus extension of the ability to produce energy (very roughly, by a factor of 100), and also a waste product that did not contain the most dangerous elements. So with one concept you attack all of the principal real issues that there are for the use of nuclear energy.

Q: Take us through the fuel cycle, as it refers to the IFR.

A: The way the fuel cycle is done now is: you mine uranium; you purify the metal; you convert it to oxide; you put it in a reactor in the form of pellets; it stays in there for about three years; you take it out, and you try to find someplace to put it. The way the IFR fuel cycle would work would be: you could start with mined uranium, or you could start with fuel for present day reactors. Either one would do perfectly well. It's left in the metal form because metal is a particularly easy thing to fabricate. And so you cast it into uranium. They're put in steel jackets and loaded into the reactor. They stay in there about three to four years, and when they come out, they're put through a very simple process. One step separates out the useful materials. And then cast the metal again back into fuel that go right back into the reactor. The material that's left behind is the true, the natural waste.

Q: The fission products.

A: Fission products. But none of the long-lived toxic elements like plutonium and americium or curium, the so-called manmade elements. They're the long-lived toxic ones. And they're recycled back into the reactor ... and work every bit as well as plutonium.

Q: So they go in, and then those are broken into fission products, or some of it is. Right?

A: Yes.

Q: And you repeat the process.

A: Eventually, what happens is that you wind up with only fission products, that the waste is only fission products that have, most have lives of hours, days, months, some a few tens of years. There are a few very long-lived ones that are not very radioactive. And those are put in either metallic [matrix], a metallic container, or in a ceramic, very much like the ceramic in a sink so that the form of the waste, then, is something very impermeable to any kind of dissolution or anything like that, that will certainly last long enough to take care of the radioactive lives of materials that it's asked to contain.

Q: But the advantages of this concept are, one, that you don't waste energy, and two, that you get round this very long life toxicity problem?

A: Yes. The advantages, then, of our concept ... at one stroke you have given yourself almost unlimited energy and you have then done it by using the waste product that otherwise would be a nuisance. So that you have a very long-term energy source, and you've got a waste product that won't last nearly as long.

Q: So when you say the source is the waste, you're saying you don't have to mine any more uranium for a while. What could you use? Can you use weapons material? Can you use waste from reactors?

A: You could use any and all of those things. [If] the weapons stocks are being reduced, as they are today, an ideal way to use that plutonium would be in an IFR. If the policy of the nation were to allow recycling of spent fuel that is a problem now for present day plants, it would be a wonderful [fuel for IFRs]. If in fact IFRs use uranium so effectively, my guess is, you could probably make a few parts per million in sea water. It really does allow an energy source that is unlimited.

Q: Now, what about the issue of proliferation, the issue of making plutonium available to terrorists?

A: The object in the IFR demonstration was to invent, if you like, a process that did not allow separations of pure plutonium that would be necessary for weapons. In order to recycle, you need some kind of a chemical process. And the chemical process that was invented here at Argonne used quite different principles than present processes do. It allows the separation of that group of things that are useful, but not one from the other, so that you cannot separate plutonium purely from uranium and the other things. You can separate uranium, plutonium, and the other useful things from the fission products. So it does exactly what you want it to do. It gives you the new fuel, and it separates off the waste product, but it doesn't allow careful distinguishing between the materials that are useful, such that you could use one or another of those materials for weapons.

Q: So it would be very difficult to handle for weapons, would it?

A: It's impossible to handle for weapons, as it stands.

It's highly radioactive. It's highly heat producing. It has all of the characteristics that make it extremely, well, make it impossible for someone to make a weapon.

Q: The other aspect of the integral fast reactor is that it's one of a type of what's called passive reactors. What does this mean?

A: Well, the IFR has characteristics that are really quite different and superior to any other reactor that has yet been tried, because in the very nature of the materials that are used, it does not allow the reactor to be harmed in any way by the kinds of accidents that typically can happen to reactors, or indeed any other large plant. The electricity-producing plant reactor has a lot of valves, a lot of pumps, a lot of mechanical things that can go wrong. And the thing that you don't want to happen is to have the coolant, at once cooling the reactor and also then acting as the source of heat for steam to produce electricity. You don't want that flow to stop. That's what happened at TMI. That's what happened at Chernobyl. And if it does stop, then what happens? And in the IFR what happens is, the reactor just shuts itself down. There's no mechanical devices needed to do that. There's no operator interaction. There isn't anything. It's just in the nature of materials. When the coolant flow stops, the reaction stops. That's remarkable.

Q: So it's inherently safe.

A: So it's inherently safe. It's a remarkable feature.

Q: And you in fact ran an experiment that was comparable to what happened at Chernobyl?

A: Yes, yes. Let me go on a little bit about that, because it is a rather dramatic characteristic. The Chernobyl accident happened in April 26 of 1986. Earlier that month, the first week in April, with our test reactor in Idaho, in fact the same reactor control room where we're now sitting, we performed a demonstration of that characteristic, where if you cut off the coolant from the reactor, what would happen? And there are two ways to cut off the coolant. One is that simply the pumps that are pumping the reactor stop. The reactor just shut itself down. And in the afternoon, we brought the reactor back up to full power again and did an accident situation where the reactor's unable to get rid of the heat it produces, because the heat normally is taken away by the electrical system, and so we isolated the electrical system from the plant, and the reactor then has to deal with the heat it produces itself. Again, another real accident situation. Again, the reactor just quietly shut itself down.

Now, later that month, the Chernobyl accident happened. And the first of those scenarios that I described, where the cooling pumps were shut off, is exactly what happened at Chernobyl. The public was privileged to witness what happened there, over a period of weeks. What happened here was, the reactor just quietly shut itself down. That was the basis of the story in The Wall Street Journal, when some very alert science reporter realized the similarity of the two events, and the nonaccident in one case and the terrible accident in the other.

Q: So this concept of the IFR sounds almost too good to be true, because it gets energy from waste, it substantially solves your waste problem. Now, you'd think, if anything was easy to sell, this would be. How much luck have you had?

A: Well, we had ten years of development where we were able to prove these characteristics. And I must say in fairness that to be able to start with a new concept, as we did, in the mid-1980s, and develop it as far as we were able to go, was in itself quite remarkable. And I think it's testimony to the quality of the concept and quality of (people) on it. But in the end, of course, the arguments for it proved to be insufficient to keep the development going.

Q: The argument most put on the Senate floor was that the IFR increases the risks of proliferation.

A: Yes. Well, it doesn't. As simply as that. There's no technical reason why one would make that argument. In order to produce weapons, you have to produce pure plutonium. The IFR process will not do that. The only possible argument that would hold any water whatsoever was that when showing people that plutonium is not the demon substance that it's been advertised as being, that, in fact, it's quite a workaday material, that in some way or other, the familiarity of it could be used to say that it doesn't hold the terrors that it's supposed to hold, and so, perhaps, more tempting in some way for someone to try to misuse it. But I mean, that's a far-out kind of argument, it seems to me, compared to the unquestioned benefits from simply using this stuff to produce energy.

Q: But they were arguing that this made the world less safe. Would you say the opposite, or what?

A: No, I would say completely the opposite. Modern society runs on energy. This gives a wonderful, clean form of energy. Its possibility for misuse for weapons goes against the history of the development of nuclear energy over the last 50 years. If weapons are going to be produced, they're going to be produced by making plutonium in facilities that specifically make weapons-grade plutonium, because that's the kind that the weapon designer needs. The IFR doesn't do that.

Q: Curiously, a number of the people in utilities haven't been especially supportive. They say the thing is just too expensive. Why aren't they ordering IFRs?

A: Well, I think that there's really two different cases to be made. It's very easy, I think, for those who simply oppose nuclear energy outright, to if you like, soften their statements to the [innocent ear] by saying, "Well, really it's too expensive," without having any sound basis for making any assessment [to] whether it's too expensive or not. The price of nuclear energy today, if the plants were properly built and properly run, would be perfectly competitive with coal and gas. If the plants cost far too much in the building, even through regulatory or inefficient management or whatever, then the price of that would [increase]. But there's no intrinsic reason why nuclear in general, even today, should not be very competitive.

The reuse of recycled fuel in the IFR is where the potential great benefits lie, in the solution of the waste problem, in the sense that the waste is much easier to get rid of. And then the plants don't have to, as they do today, simply build up the spent fuel in pools and wonder what on earth are they going to do with it. There's nobody today who can tell you how much it's going to cost to get rid of that spent fuel. The utility today, because of agreements, can give it to the Department of Energy, and at a very low price, if they can convince the Department of Energy to take it. And it seems to me they will succeed and are succeeding in doing that. But now the Department of Energy has got a problem. And how much that will cost the nation there's no way of predicting. The IFR gets at those problems.

But really the powerful argument for nuclear is not whether it's necessary today. It produces 20% of our nation's electricity. That's a lot of electricity. That's a lot of benefit. But the real benefit of it is in the decades and the centuries to come, where you [could] have an energy source that you can count on, and not to wonder, you know, whether we have ten more years of reserves or 50 more years of reserves or whatever. It takes away that problem entirely.

Now, in having done that, to do that in a way that the reactors are safe, that they don't contribute to proliferation, and that they have a fairly easily disposable waste product, in my view, that's a wonderful thing. And that was the promise and is the promise.

Q: What do you think of the policy of digging a hole in Yucca Mountain and sticking it in there? Why are so many people pushing for that to happen?

A: The burial of the spent fuel intact was one of the principal effects of the decisions in '77 to discontinue reprocessing efforts. It's had a very deleterious effect. Digging a hole and putting the spent fuel in it, as far as I'm concerned, is a perfectly fine thing to do, if you want to do that. You've done a number of things you shouldn't do, in my view. You've thrown away 99% of the waste of the energy content. You've put toxic materials in the ground that are perfectly useful for energy. You've done a number of things that don't make a whole lot of sense to me. But having said that, I'm perfectly convinced that the repository in Yucca Mountain, expensive or inordinately expensive though it may be, and it may never come about, but if it does, it will handle nuclear waste perfectly safely. But at a tremendous cost.

Q: So it will be a waste.

A: It's a waste. Yeah. It's a waste. It's a waste of resources. It's a waste of energy potential. It's a waste of human effort. It's a waste of all kinds of things. But having said that, it is the one avenue now that the utilities have to solve a problem that has been handed to them--keeping spent fuel on site. The utilities must argue for Yucca Mountain. They have no choice, particularly where the Administrations are canceling any other alternative. If you block every other alternative then the one certain path that the utility has is that hole in the ground.

Q: And they don't want things like the IFR distracting people ...

A: Oh no, because it's too uncertain. The IFR could be allowed to go for another year, and then a change of mind in an administration, and it's canceled, it's gone. The hole in the ground in Nevada is a permanent hole in the ground. And so if you or I were sitting in the shoes of the CEO or utility, the local utility, and we see the spent fuel going up, and we have restrictions on the amount of additional storage space we can put in, what is what is our reaction going to be? Our reaction is going to be: "We've got to get that repository in Yucca Mountain open. We've got to get the Department of Energy to accept the fuel as it now is. And any other path, even though it ultimately may be a better path, we cannot allow that to interfere with our problems that we face today." And I understand that. It's perfectly [reasonable].

Q: Is the IFR still operating?

A: No. The IFR was canceled in the end of September of 1994, two years ago.

Q: Who made that decision?

A: The decision was made in the early weeks of the Clinton administration. It was tempered somewhat in the Department of Energy in that first year. Congress then acted to keep the program alive in that first year. And then in the second year of the Clinton administration, the decision to really reinforce the earlier decisions was made final, and the Administration put a very considerable effort into assuring successfully that the IFR would be canceled.

Q: And what was the basis for the decision to cancel the IFR? What grounds, what argument was presented?

A: The arguments fundamentally were that there was no longer any need for advanced nuclear power or research on nuclear power. In President Clinton's State of the Union address that first year, one of the statements was that unneeded programs would be canceled, and for example, programs on advanced nuclear power would be canceled. So that the fundamental argument was that there was no longer any need for any further research.

Q: Where does the IFR stand today?

A: Well, the IFR today is not an active program. The development of the IFR was carried on from 1984, then, to 1994. The work on the new fuel form and on the processes and on safety and so on, is all documented thoroughly in the literature, in the technical literature, so that the knowledge that was gained in those years is certainly there for others to study if they wish to do so. There is related work on the process, on the chemical processes, now being done at Argonne to help with some of the DOE nuclear waste. But it's not aimed at the IFR.

Q: But the lights are still on in this room, which is the control room. What's still running here?

A: Well, the reactor itself is being decommissioned. And when you do that, we have to take the fuel out, and that's done deliberately and safely. And so what you see going on around you here are the decommissioning activities of what had been a very successful reactor.

Q: Then its future is in the documentation at this point?

A: The future, I think, can be said quite honestly that the future of the IFR in this country is nonexistent.

Q: But in some other country?

A: I think the chances are very good that the IFR concepts will be adopted by others. They are, after all, very sound.

Q: Do you think the particular administration we've had over the last two decades has been particularly anti-nuclear?

A: Let me answer the question this way. Nuclear power for very many years was not a party proposition. There was bipartisan support for the development of nuclear power. That changed in and around the 1976. It was certainly changed dramatically during the Carter Administration, from '76 to '80. The Reagan administration was supportive of nuclear power development, but not madly so. They supported a continued effort, probably at a level of something like 10 or 20% of the effort that had been carried out in the country a decade or so before. That was also true of the Bush administration. The Clinton administration, I think, firmed up quite an anti-nuclear power position. The position of the administration is that present day reactors are supported, but that there is no need for any further nuclear reactor development or improvement. And the implications of that are that nuclear power then will be a passing thing. But without recycling, there is no real future.

Q: What will be our energy source, then?

A: I think that many engineers would agree that there is limited, additional gain to be had from conservation. After all, what does one mean by "conservation?" One simply means using less and using less more efficiently. And there have been considerable gains wrung out of the energy supply and energy usage over the past couple of decades. We can probably go somewhat further. But you're talking, you know, 10% or 20%. Whereas over the next 50 years, it can be confidently predicted that with the energy growth in this country alone, and much more so around the world, it would be 100%, 200%, or some very large number.

And so what energy source steps in? There is only one. It's fossil fuel. It's coal. It's oil. It's natural gas. Some limited additional use of the more exotic forms of things, like solar and wind. But they are, after all, very limited in what they can do. So it will be fossil.

Now the question, of course, immediately becomes, well, how long can that last? And everyone has a different opinion on that. One thing that is certain, and that is that the increase in the use of fossil fuels will sharply increase the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Another thing is certain. You will put a lot more pollutants into the atmosphere as well, in addition to carbon dioxide, which one could argue the greenhouse effect exists or doesn't exist. One can point to natural gas. Well, natural gas has fewer pollutants, and it gives you some considerable factor of perhaps two--more energy for the amount of carbon dioxide put into the air than does coal. But if you're increasing the amount of fossil fuels by a large number, like five then the use of natural gas is not any long-term answer. It simply somewhat reduces what may be a very serious problem.

Q: What about Solar?

A: Solar? No.

Q: Wind?

A: No. Small amounts. Small amounts only. The simplest form of pencil calculation will tell you that. But you know, energy has to be produced for modern society on a huge scale. The only way you can do that is with energy sources that have concentrated energy in them: coal, oil, natural gas. And the quintessential example of it is nuclear, where the energy is so concentrated, you have something to work [with]. With solar, your main problem is gathering it. In nuclear, it's there. It's been gathered.

Q: What about the rest of the world? What will it do for energy?

A: Well, parts of the rest of the world are very much powered by nuclear electricity today. France, of course, is the principal example. But all of the Western European countries. Japan will continue an orderly increase in the amount of nuclear power. There's no question about that. There will be a tremendous increase in China and in Asia of both the use of coal and the use of nuclear energy. I hope that most of it's nuclear.

Q: So the United States economically, by foreclosing the nuclear future, will foreclose that part of its economic policy too, its economic competition.

A: I think that this policy will have unintended consequences that will be serious. But I recognize also that any man's opinion is as good as anyone else's on that. But one thing sure is that nuclear energy is going to be needed, is needed today as an energy source. It will be developed around the world. It will be developed by highly intelligent people, every bit as intelligent as we are. They will make the intelligent choices. They will develop the forms of nuclear energy that are best. Our nation will be best served by trying to lead, in my view, or at least be a responsible part of it. I think that best serves the interest.

Q: In terms of day-to-day operation, which puts more radiation into the atmosphere: a coal plant or a nuclear plant?

A: Coal plants, by a large margin.

Q: What's the form of the radiation?

A: The radiation is from the contaminants in the coal, the radioactive contaminants in the coal, and they go right up the stack.

Q: Which are?

A: Well, thorium.

Q: Uranium?

A: Uranium as well. Yeah, sure. And, well, I mean, it's ridiculous. It's a large source of pollution.

Q: No nuclear plants are being commissioned since the late '70s.

A: Right.

Q: Plants which are seeking to relicense are having trouble because of the waste issue. Is the first chapter of nuclear energy at least dead in this country? Can anything save it now?

A: I don't know. You see, nuclear power in this country has to be understood in the context that nuclear power was never needed as a present day source. It wasn't needed in the '50s, wasn't needed in the '60s, '70s, '80s, isn't really needed today. The U.S. is still very resource-rich with fossil fuels. And currently, we can import as much oil as we want. And so as long as you can do that, and if nuclear power is troublesome to you in any way, why, you just turn away from it. The present generation of nuclear is a perfectly adequate electrical generation source. There's no sound reason why it shouldn't continue for decades. Is it going to? Yes, it will. Will all of the nuclear plants now in operation continue? No. But nuclear, for the plants that have been well maintained and have largely had the capital costs paid off, are going to be very cheap forms of electrical energy that will be a real force. California, for example, and other places to keep those plants going a very long time. So it will go on. Will there be more plants built? I don't know. Others' guesses are probably better than mine.

Q: As somebody who's seen a technology which was principally pioneered in this country, rise and fall, do you feel frustrated that the next chapter may be made somewhere else in the world?

A: Well, of course one does. I go back to my feelings when I was a young man going into this field, that this was the place to be to do something for mankind. And I believe that we have succeeded in at least a modest way, here at Argonne. And to have our nation not follow up on it is disappointing. But many things in life are. The exciting thing about nuclear power is its ability to handle mankind's needs in the future. The vast amount of energy that's possible from it. It's not if we can produce it for two cents per hour or four cents a kilowatt hour, where coal ... is three cents or whatever ... it requires an infrastructure and, if I may say so, a care and intelligence perhaps not needed in a coal plant.

Q: So the need is based on a very long-term vision.

A: Yes, but not long-term by the lifetime of man. You know, I sincerely hope that you live 80-90 years. On a scale of 80 or 90 years, nuclear power is going to be a very necessary thing, and in large amounts. Not only in the rest of the world is my guess. It will be very necessary here, as well.

Q: The current situation on the IFR, do you have any hope that it can be saved?

A: I don't think that the administration will support further work in nuclear energy. And without the administration's support, there is little chance that a successful development program could proceed. That must be a policy of the nation, as enunciated by the administration. And for good reason or not, that is not the policy of this administration. So without administration support, there is no real hope of proceeding with the IFR.


home | did you know? | maps & charts | interviews | readings | glossary | reactions | faqs | join in
web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation
PBS Online
SUPPORT PROVIDED BY

FRONTLINE on

ShopPBS