U.S. Fast Breeder Reactor Program Needs Direction

EMD-80-81: Published: Sep 22, 1980. Publicly Released: Sep 22, 1980.

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The Administration and Congress have not been able to agree on the future role of fast nuclear breeder reactors. They cannot decide whether to rely on nuclear power as a long- or short-term energy supply source. If a long-term future for nuclear power is desired, or even if a nuclear option is to be maintained, construction and operation of a fast breeder demonstration plant is needed. The date for the commercialization of the liquid metal fast breeder reactor (LMFBR) has been postponed from 1986 to about 2020. The reasons given for the delay included concern that plutonium-based nuclear fuels may lead to international nuclear weapons proliferation, projections supporting a diminished need for commercial breeder reactors, projections that LMFBR's would not become economically competitive for several decades, questions about the safety of LMFBR's, and the belief that the Clinch River Breeder Reactor was too small, too costly, and technically obsolete. In fiscal year 1981, the Department of Energy (DOE) is planning to terminate its participation in the gas-cooled fast breeder reactor program while continuing to fund the light water breeder reactor program. But the light water breeder reactor program cannot be viewed as an alternative or backup to LMFBR's because its objective and purpose are different. DOE withdrawal from participation in the technology development program will probably cause the collapse of the industrial infrastructure that has grown in support of the program, and consequently, the only nuclear alternative to the LMFBR program will be lost.

GAO believes that the current strategy of postponing the commercialization date of the LMFBR program will not necessarily enable this country to achieve its nonproliferation goals. The projections of the availability of uranium are uncertain. Unanticipated events could increase the future demand for nuclear energy and the need for an early commercialization of breeder reactors. The ultimate economics of the LMFBR program are difficult to accurately project. The LMFBR is no more or less safe than the current generation of light water reactors. The LMFBR program lacks a clear mission. The disagreement between Congress and the Administration has made planning and directing the program difficult for DOE. Recent actions by the Administration underscore its desire to kill the Clinch River project and to defer any commitment for a substitute plant. A strong LMFBR program includes constructing and operating a plant, something which has not been done. A backup technology should be available for development in case the LMFBR program fails to meet its objectives.

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    Priority Open Recommendations:

    Department of Energy
    GAO-20-285PR: Published: Apr 22, 2020. Publicly Released: Apr 29, 2020.

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