Monday, September 29, 2008

It's Baaaaaaaaaaaaaaack!

You just can't make this stuff up.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

NRDC: Russian Fast Reactor Program "A Failure"

From the ongoing BAS roundtable "Managing the Global Growth of Nuclear Energy":
As has been noted by Frank von Hippel, co-director of Princeton University's Program on Science and Global Security, the GNEP vision of burning the long-lived actinides, requires for every 100 thermal reactors of the type used throughout the United States today, some 40-75 new fast reactors of similar capacity. The commercial use of large numbers of fast reactors for actinide burning is unlikely to occur because--to borrow observations made by U.S. Navy Admiral Hyman Rickover more than 50 years ago--fast reactors have proven to be “expensive to build, complex to operate, susceptible to prolong shutdown as a result of even minor malfunctions, and difficult and time-consuming to repair.” The development of fast reactors to breed plutonium failed in the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, and Japan. I would argue it failed in the Soviet Union despite the fact that the Soviets operated two commercial-size fast breeder plants, BN-350 (now shut down in Kazakhstan) and BN-600 (still operational in Russia), because the Soviet Union and Russia never successfully closed the fuel cycle and thus never operated these plants using MOX (mixed-uranium and plutonium oxide) fuel.
That's from Thomas B. Cochran of the NRDC. Clearly, someone forgot to tell the Russians, given what Premier Putin said back in July:
But it is necessary to migrate to new technologies: to introduce a closed fuel cycle, to construct a commercial fast reactor.
Meanwhile, construction of the BN-800 is continuing apace. Never mind as well that MOX fuel assemblies made with recovered plutonium have been tested in the BN-600. Even though I agree with Cochran that the GNEP plan to build dozens of commercial fast reactors is a non-starter, the fact of the matter is that the Russians' fast reactor efforts show that these plants can be operated on a commercial basis, and constructed affordably enough that, given a very significant increase in uranium prices, they could be competitive with conventional LWR designs.

The Internal Layout of the BN-800 Reactor Scheduled for Completion in 2012.

The real question is whether the BN-series reactors are safe enough. Even though Rosenergoatom claims that the BN-800 incorporates features that avoid the problem of a positive void coefficient and possible recriticality in case of a meltdown, I haven't been able to locate technical information detailed enough to evaluate these claims. The Russians are also developing the BREST series reactors, which are lead-cooled fast reactors intended to incorporate passive safety features like the IFR concept. Unlike the BN-800, however, these are clearly a long way from fruition. In any case, however, the Russians seem to be betting the future on these fast reactors--wise or not.