70 years ago – Dr. Enrico Fermi

In Chicago 70 years ago, a team of scientists lead by Nobel Prize winner, Dr. Enrico Fermi, created the first controlled nuclear fission.  The Manhattan Project’s B-Reactor was fully operational in an incredibly short time.  Plutonium was separated.  This innovation, engineering and human effort brought an end to WWII.  Nobel laureate Glenn Seaborg later called plutonium the most valuable material.

Dr. Fermi envisioned a future that needed abundant nuclear energy for the production of energy and isotopes.  The raw material was uranium, and it was needed in abundance because of the scarcity of the fissile isotope of uranium – only 0.7% – that is 7 thousandths of natural pure uranium.

In today’s reactors this uranium isotope (235) is concentrated 5-6 times, the remaining uranium is waste (but not in Fermi’s vision).  So today a ton of reactor fuel creates 5-6 tons of useless uranium (238) all mined from the earth.
The Cold War created a huge demand for Seaborg’s most valuable material.  Uranium was prospected, found and mined worldwide.

The Cold War ended and the price of uranium collapsed.

But today there are 437 nuclear power reactors being operated and more are being built at an increasing rate.  The price of uranium has increased to commercially profitable levels.

Dr. Fermi calculated that the uranium resource could be used much more efficiently with a fast reactor.  In Idaho they built the Experimental Breeder Reactor(EBR) soon followed with the EBR-II.

These operations proved the dramatic increase in the production of energy from the uranium resource because 1) the fuel could be burned longer and 2) the uranium waste can be changed into usable fuel.  They also proved that a fast reactor is, walk away, inherently safe.

The remarkable success of this science and technology lead the United States to embark upon building the breeder reactor as a cornerstone of the next generation energy policy of the USA.  The Fast Flux Test Facility (FFTF) was built to test and certify the MOX fuel for the Breeder Reactor.  The FFTF was the most advanced nuclear test reactor in the world – probably still is today.

President Carter cancelled the breeder reactor for nuclear proliferation concerns.  The hydrocarbon and rail lobby was concerned, too.

Idaho had proven a technically superior advancement of “metal” fuel made by pyroprocessing, and was anticipating the planned construction of the Integral Fast Reactor (IFR) based on metal fuel and recycle via pyroprocessing.
The FFTF began to qualify/test the pyroprocessed, Idaho supplied “metal” fuel.   All of these GenIV tests and operations were technically difficult but successful.

Dr. Fermi and his vision has achieved a level of scientific, technological and engineering success unparalleled in human history.  He had demonstrated and proven the power of splitting the atom and the technical ability to harness/generate massive amounts of power/electricity.  Plus, faced with an unsustainable inefficiency of the uranium resource, he designed a fission system, the sodium fast reactor, that would increase the usage of uranium by 1000’s of times – AND provide for the power production use of thorium, a most bountiful element.

In the U.S., Dr. Fermi and his vision have been laid to waste via politics; his (our) leadership in GenIV technology forfeited.  70 years and $100 billion of GenIV nuclear energy investment sunk — but the politicians say we won’t need it.  On second thought, politicians do not understand the topic.

A favorite quote:

“Much of the social history of the Western world, over the past three decades, has been a history of replacing what worked with what sounded good.”
Thomas Sowell

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