ALTHOUGH Yoon Chang has mastered the arcana of atomic nuclei, the award-winning nuclear engineer is left scratching his head over his fickle treatment by the federal government.
The government on Feb. 14 awarded Dr. Chang the prestigious E. O. Lawrence Prize for his leadership in the effort to achieve safe, efficient, and low-waste nuclear energy through the Integral Fast Reactor (IFR).
But the applause for Chang at the Department of Energy barely hid the rude fact that, just a week before, President Clinton in the 1995 federal budget had axed Chang's program to develop the IFR as a next-generation nuclear reactor.
``I can't see how the US would just turn away from development of a technology like the IFR,'' says Chang.
The flip-flopping by the federal government over the IFR is nothing new. The experimental reactor, also called a breeder because it can produce as much fuel as it consumes, has been in a steady state of political limbo almost since the program started. Chang and his colleagues at the federal Argonne National Laboratory have coped with budgetary fits and starts for a long time.
But the government's recent mixed message to Chang put a human face on many of the contradictions and points of friction in US energy policy. Chang's encounters with the federal government also highlight the difficulty of funding research into new energy sources in a period of budgetary austerity.
The case of the double-dealt nuclear engineer shows additionally how US dependence on cheap fossil fuels and traditional forms of energy has discouraged a large-scale effort to find new ways of generating power.
The IFR has been criticized more recently for being costlier than current energy sources and for defying government guidelines against plutonium recycling and noncommercial nuclear research.
In theory, though, the IFR poses some seductive solutions to many of the engineering, safety, and health problems associated with nuclear power.
Among its strengths:
* A liquid sodium cooling system that is safer and more reliable than the US's light-water reactors (LWR) that generate electricity today.
* A metal-alloy fuel that is safer and easier to cool and recycle than the LWR fuel of uranium embedded in ceramics.
* An electrochemical process that reduces waste and greatly increases efficiency by separating uranium, plutonium, and other highly radioactive material from used fuel rods for reinsertion into the reactor's core.
* The ability to almost completely burn up plutonium, including the estimated 100 metric tons of destabilizing, weapons-grade plutonium that is being dismantled from Russian and US nuclear warheads.
Chang says the Clinton administration overestimated the cost of building and running advanced reactors when it decided to shut down the IFR and other facets of the project - also called the Advanced Liquid Metal Reactor program. Moreover, the administration lacks a responsible plan for coping with the growing stockpile of civilian and weapons-grade plutonium, he says. The administration opposes plutonium recycling because of concern over the spread of material vital for nuclear weaponry.
Plutonium supply grows
``We have to recognize the reality that the amount of plutonium is growing, and just because we don't like the plutonium, it's not going to disappear,'' says Chang.
Several scientists have questioned most attributes of the experimental reactor, including its value for burning up plutonium. Most notably, a panel under the National Academy of Sciences last month said advanced reactors like the IFR should not be built for the purpose of plutonium disposal because of their high cost, technological uncertainties, and the long period before their startup. Instead, the influential panel suggests that the government burn the plutonium in the already-operating LWRs.
The experimental reactor has been under fire since the Reagan administration endorsed the IFR in 1984. The reactor was originally funded as an advanced, plutonium-fired alternative to LWRs. It was supported largely because of concerns that the US could face a shortage of uranium, the LWR fuel.
However, uranium has been plentiful in the past several years and its price has steadily fallen. Consequently, the IFR has lost its primary raison d'etre and appeared increasingly weak compared to advanced versions of LWRs now under development.
As the price of uranium fell, proponents of the IFR championed it as a way to dispose of spent fuel from commercial reactors. But that rationale also was questioned, most notably in a report by a group of scientists from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California in March 1992.
Finally, IFR advocates lit on the nonproliferation rationale, only to be disputed by the Office of Technology Assessment last September, and now the academy.
``One independent advisory board after another has come out in opposition to various potential missions that have been proposed for this technology,'' says a staff member for a House committee that has handled the IFR program.
The experimental reactor ``is definitely a technology in search of a mission,'' he says.
But the greatest impediment to the IFR is neither technical nor a point of policy but one of simple cost, critics of the IFR say. The expense of building and operating the advanced reactor makes it inferior to LWRs and traditional energy sources, according to several scientists.
Advanced reactors like the IFR are less attractive because of slow growth in electricity demand and emergence of cheap energy sources like combined-cycle turbines fired by natural gas, says John Holdren, energy professor at the University of California at Berkeley and head of the committee that wrote the National Academy of Sciences report.