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.


Pluto Boy said...

Lets get our terminology straight. Use of the term "closed fuel cycle" is at best a faulty term to describe use of reprocessing and fast reactors. Give the vast amounts of liquid reprocessing waste, discharge of radioactive gases to the atmosphere, resulting low- and medium-level waste, huge stockpiles of contaminated reprocessed uranium which are essentially unused, and lack of reprocessing of spent plutonium (MOX) fuel (even if the separated Pu is used in the first place), there is certainly nothing closed about this. Rather, there are many, many open pathways of radioactive contamination and discharge. Those who call it a "closed" fuel cycle are perhaps also likely to avoid use of the word "reprocessing" and instead call it "recycling," which is being demonstrated that it is certainly not. In any event, if fiscal conservatives recover from the blows of Bush's big-spending government, the reprocessing (open fuel cycle) push will come to a screeching halt.

Sovietologist said...

I am not an advocate of using fast reactors and aqueous reprocessing as a long-term solution to the problem of nuclear waste. The Russians are working on more advanced versions of aqueous reprocessing that are supposed to significantly reduce the environmental externalities. At the same time, the actual conditions at the Mayak reprocessing plant are pretty horrendous. Pyroprocessing or molten-salt reprocessing, in my view, are better options, but neither of these technologies has been developed to commercial maturity. In the meantime, I'm an advocate for constructing a secure interim dry cask storage facility at one of the weapons reservations. This will allow us to keep our options open, exploring various options and finding better technological solutions than current PUREX technology. Failing all that, we could construct an permanent geological disposal, but I'm hopeful that within my lifetime we'll develop molten-salt reactors that will allow us to burn up the existing spent fuel inventory without the pitfalls associated with the old LMFBR/PUREX concept.