Fast reactors are alive and kicking

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Rosatom's fourth unit at its Beloyarsk nuclear power plant is a BN-800 fast breeder reactor that was connected to the grid in December 2015

Rosatom’s BN-800 fast breeder reactor was connected to the grid in Dec 2015

Fast breeder reactors have already been successfully developed in Russia and they will become successful outside of Russia too if policymakers and investors decide to make them a priority, writes Ian Hore-Lacy, Senior Research Analyst at the World Nuclear Association.

Anti-nuclear campaigner Jim Green declared in Energy Post recently that fast reactors are dying a slow death. He used a lot of information from the World Nuclear Association to support his argument. It is good to see that he does not take issue with anything we have published in our information papers. However, he is selective. For example, he makes too much of countries backpedalling on the technology due to the effect of abundant low-cost uranium likely to last to mid century, even with substantially increased demand from conventional reactors. He also points to the sort of technical and other failures that can be expected with any innovative technology.

So, let me set out the main elements of the fast neutron reactor (FNR) picture as I see it, which is much more positive than Green’s vision.

When the first fast reactors were built and operated in the 1960s-70s, a shortage of uranium was feared, and this drove policy to utilize that uranium much more fully. We now know that uranium is abundant, and can be recovered economically from low-grade ores.  Today the development of FNRs is justified rather by the desire to burn long-lived actinides from used light water (conventional) reactor fuel.

Then there was a big setback. When President Carter put the brakes on FNR development in the USA in 1977 by banning reprocessing, that pulled the carpet from under what was arguably the world’s leading FNR program. Some FNR research has continued there, but with little government funding.

India, however, with an abundance of thorium but little uranium, and cut off from world nuclear trade, embarked upon a unique program to utilize that thorium, with FNRs as a middle step. In fact its small experimental fast reactor (FBTR) has been operating since 1985. Admittedly its 500 MWe prototype fast breeder reactor (PFBR) at Kalpakkam under construction by BHAVINI since 2004 has proceeded slowly. Maybe we will see it start up next year.

Forged ahead

Though several countries have stated vague objectives about a likely high number of fast reactors by mid-century, Russia is really the only country that has forged ahead with them.  Its BN-600 at Beloyarsk has operated well, supplying electricity to the grid since 1980, and is said to have the best operating and production record of all Russia’s nuclear power units.

Its successor is the BN-800, also at Beloyarsk. This is a new more powerful FNR, which is actually the same overall size and configuration as BN-600.  There are some significant improvements from BN-600 however. The first BN-800 (and probably only Russian one) is Beloyarsk-4, which started up in mid 2014 and recently went into commercial operation.  Whereas several BN-800s were once envisaged, this BN-800 at Beloyarsk has become essentially a test rig for fuel, and its main purpose has become providing operating experience and technological solutions, especially regarding fuel, that will be applied to the BN-1200.

The BN-1200 fast reactor is being developed as a next step towards Generation IV types (see box), and the design was expected to be complete this year. Rosatom’s Science and Technology Council has approved the BN-1200 reactor for construction at Beloyarsk, with plant operation from about 2025. A second one is to be built at South Urals by 2030. Others are envisaged following. It is significantly different from preceding BN models, and Rosatom plans to submit the BN-1200 to the Generation IV International Forum (GIF) as a Generation IV design.

Generation IV

The Generation IV International Forum (GIF), inaugurated in 2001, is a major international programme, which, on the basis of collaboration among 13 countries and the EU, is developing six nuclear reactor technologies for future deployment. Four of these are fast reactors. All operate at higher temperatures than most of today’s plants, and four are designated for hydrogen production as well as power. More information here.

Small reactor

This is the only firm program of large commercial fast reactors at this stage. However, Russia is also active with smaller and more innovative FNR designs. It has experimented with several lead-cooled reactor designs, and used lead-bismuth cooling for 40 years in reactors for its seven Alfa class submarines – not very successfully but accumulating 70 reactor-years of experience.

A significant new Russian design getting away from sodium cooling is the BREST fast neutron reactor, of 300 MWe or more with lead as the primary coolant, at 540°C, and supercritical steam generators. A pilot unit is planned at Seversk, and 1200 MWe units are proposed.  Interestingly, it is a lead-cooled fast reactor design that Westinghouse has flagged a real interest in.

Getting into the small modular reactor scene is Russia’s lead-bismuth fast reactor (SVBR) of about 100 MWe.  This is an integral design, which can use a wide variety of fuels.  The unit would be factory-made and shipped as a 4.5m diameter, 7.5m high module, then installed in a tank of water which gives passive heat removal and shielding.  A power station with 16 such modules is expected to supply electricity at low cost as well as achieving inherent safety and high proliferation resistance.  A new cooperation agreement with China may advance plans for this, since in contrast with other nuclear R&D there, China’s own FNR program seems stalled.

And in the research reactor scene, Russia plans to replace the veteran BOR-60 fast reactor after the end of 2020 with a 100-150 MWt multi-purpose fast neutron research reactor (MBIR), with four times the irradiation capacity and a number of interesting features.

Astrid

In addition to the Russian programme, there are many other fast reactor designs around the world being investigated by governments and private enterprise, and time will tell which will succeed. Most are relatively small.

One worth mentioning is Astrid, a French project with Japanese input. Astrid is envisaged as a 600 MWe prototype of a commercial series of 1500 MWe sodium-cooled fast reactors which are likely to be deployed from about 2050 to utilise the half million tonnes of depleted uranium that France will have by then. Astrid will have high fuel burn-up, including minor actinides in the fuel elements, and its mixed oxide (MOX) fuel will be broadly similar to that in Europe’s current reactors.

Another is GE-Hitachi’s PRISM, based on a smaller US fast reactor which ran for 30 years to 1994.  It is 311 MWe, a convenient size for replacing fossil fuel units, and its metallic fuel is derived from used fuel from conventional reactors. In October 2016 GEH signed an agreement with a subsidiary of Southern Nuclear Operating Company, to collaborate on licensing fast reactors including PRISM in the USA.

Fast reactors are certainly at an earlier stage of development than the 430 commercial power reactors of conventional design. But despite the failures and setbacks inevitable in any technology step up, there are enough highly positive developments to be confident of success if they become a major priority outside of Russia. Certainly those involved with them do not share Jim Green’s dismissive views!

Comments

  1. Martin says

    I’m outraged by such critics.They are always trying to find failures or downsides. Don’t they forget that at the beginning any innovative technology is perfect and the task of science is to improve them and to find solutions. This exactly what Russian, French and other nuclear experts do.

    • Bas says

      Martin,
      Even after half a century and spending roughly a trillion dollars worldwide, there is no success story. Worse, there is no perspective on a success story.

      E.g. France
      Their last breeder, third generation 1200MW Super-Phenix, operated ~10years until 1997, with av. capacity factor of 10%. Their new breeder, Astrid, is half that capacity.

      A sign that the developers consider the technology still immature after all. Confirmed by the absence of a construction start date 20years after the closure of Superphénix (initially Astrid would be ready in ~2020). So the 2050 date for fast breeders in France in the post is highly optimistic.

      Consider also that at 2050 wind & solar are predicted to produce for 2-3cnt/KWh (Agora, etc) while the costs of the produced electricity by Superphénix in the 1986-96 period was >60 times higher than its market value despite the then higher whole sale prices.

      So chance is big that the 2050 fast breeders will never be constructed.

  2. Aleksander Janssen says

    BN 800 works successfully, BN 1200 is being developed, four out of six Generation IV nuclear reactor technologies are fast reactors. What exactly does he mean by “dying a slow death”?

    • Karel Beckman says

      Well, so all there is is a Russian program with one functioning reactor and “Generation IV” technologies which are still undeveloped. After fifty years! I can’t predict the future, but fast reactors certainly don’t seem to have gotten very far. How long do you propose that the world should wait for results? Another fifty years?

  3. Hans says

    And while these new technologies are slowly developed and even more slowly deployed, both a huge financial cost, quickly installed wind power and PV get cheaper by the day.

    • says

      Wind and Solar is only cheaper when the sun is out and the wind is blowing. That’s roughly between 20 to 30% of the time on average. They are only beneficial on a supplemental basis and are both erratic and unreliable as sole sources of power. To accomplish that you need massive storage, redundancy and power grid expansion to overcome intermittency. Here is the bottom line: Germany spent over half a trillion dollars in pursuit of 100% RE and the result was that emissions rose almost every year to the point that they have achieved the dubious distinction of leading the E.U. in CO2 emissions for the last two out of three years as of January 1st. France, on the other hand has decarbonized their grid with nuclear power by 70% over the roughly the same time period and the cost of French electricity is almost half that of Germany. Nuclear will always be an indispensible part of the mix.

      • Hans says

        That is a whole lot of pre-cooked talking points pressed into one comment.

        It is no secret that solar and wind are variable, but you are exaggerating, probably because you confuse capacity factor with relative production time. For example, a typical wind turbine has a capacity factor of 25 to 45% (dependent on design, height and local wind resource), but it delivers electricity 70 to 90% of the time.

        Spatial averaging of local variability by means of better grids, demand side management and use of existing storage and flexibility in the production park can bring you a long way in integrating variable renewables. And it doesn’t cost the world.
        Even the conservative IEA comes to the conclusion that most grids can deal with at least 45% of variable renewables using existing technologies and at minimal extra cost. If you also consider that the price data from their study is already outdated and storage is also becoming cheaper very quickly, expensive nuclear ith long building times becomes less attractive by the day.

        Germany invested in wind and solar when they were still expensive, which still works through in the electricity prices of today. This accelerated the learning curve of these technologies, which lead to the low cost of today, from which the whole world can profit now. Countries who step on board now do not have to pay for these development cost like Germany did.

        Furthermore, retail prices of electricity are heavily distorted by taxes and subsidies which vary from state to state. Comparing electricity prices between countries does make no sense unless you carefully correct for these effects.

        Germany invested in renewables, pulled out from nuclear, had economic growth and at the same time tries to keep lignite mines and power plants open, and just when renewables where getting cheap put the break on them. Government is just not always very consistent.

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