Fast reactors needed

28 September 2001

From 2020 or 2025, Russia expects that fast reactors using MOX fuel in a continuous cycle will generate an increasing proportion of its nuclear electricity, according to First Deputy Nuclear Power Minister Valentin Ivanov.

He told the World Nuclear Association symposium (see page 15) in September that, using fast reactors, some 90GWt of electricity could be generated from nuclear plants by 2050. By then its present nuclear park would have come to the end of its operating life, even with plant life extension.

Russia’s uranium resources, including currently exploited resources, those being developed and inventories are enough for another 80-100 years if thermal reactors are used on the basis of an open fuel cycle. With a closed fuel cycle they would last for 90-120 years. However, with fast reactors, fuel resources could be almost inexhaustible.

Russia includes in its fissile material resource base all types of uranium from natural through to highly enriched military grade uranium, as well as spent fuel, plutonium (civil and military) and natural thorium. Ivanov pointed out that reprocessing of spent fuel from VVER and BN reactors in Russia had already produced 2500t of regenerated uranium for use in RBMK fuel. In addition, over 32t of plutonium arising from reprocessing had been placed in storage.

He told NEI that Russia was serious about developing its fast reactor programme and pointed out that, as well as the currently operating BN-600 at Beloyarsk and BOR-60 at Dimitrovgrad, a new larger BN-800 was being built at Beloyarsk. Pressure is also building up for the construction of a further BN-800 at Ozersk on the site of the Mayak Chemical Combine, where it could be used in part to burn radioactive wastes.

But over the coming few decades, nuclear powerFor nuclear power to be accepted, however, it would be imperative to avoid any kind of accident, Ivanov insisted. The new generation of nuclear reactors, as well as fuel cycle enterprises and storage facilities, should maximise the use of technologies that are inherently safe, “based on the physical and chemical properties of the fuel, material and other components.” As yet Russia does not have a reactor that would meet all these criteria, he said. “But safety analysis efforts are underway, with respect to the design of a fast neutron reactor with a lead coolant and high-density fuel.” Tests of various components for this are already being conducted using the BOR-60 reactor, including pilot fuel rods filled with mixed uranium-plutonium nitrite fuel. Technologies for reprocessing MOX fuel are already in use on a semi-industrial scale based on a pyroelectrochemical method using molten salts. “Overall, these technologies do meet the necessary safety requirements,” Ivanov said.

  development in Russia would be guided by four principles. Power costs should not exceed $0.03/kWh; plant capital costs should not exceed $1000/kW; plant service life should be no more than 50 years; and the utilisation rate should be at least 90%. In this case, nuclear power would remain competitive with coal, oil and even gas, especially in the more remote areas of Russia.

Any new reactor design and technologies for fuel production or reprocessing should also be proliferation-safe, preventing the withdrawal of military grade fissile material. For the same reason the transport of such material should be minimised and it should be excluded from waste products as far as possible. Russia is moving ahead on all these fronts.

The lead-cooled BREST-300 fast reactor that is under development has a gain factor of almost 1 and no blanket, minimising the possibility of producing military grade material. It is part of a project for a nuclear power plant with an on-site fuel cycle that removes the need for transport of fissile materials.

A remote-controlled automatic technology for the production of MOX fuel for the BOR-60 and BN-600 has already been tested on a semi-industrial scale. Since the fuel contains a certain amount of fission fragments it would be useless for military purposes.

Ivanov pointed out that experimental verification of the designs on an industrial scale is needed. There is also a need to develop suitable long-term controlled storage for spent fuel and wastes and ways of transmuting or burning up actinides and fission products. “Russia has already defined its long-term goals and conceptual decisions, and has outlined ways to achieve these aims,” Ivanov said.

He is sure that the transition to the new generation of nuclear plants and fuel cycle enterprises will be “smooth and evolutionary” but will take more than two decades. Further experimentation, development and verification of design decisions is essential. To ensure the best and most reliable results, the participation and co-operation of many different countries is needed, he said, adding: “Russia is prepared to take part in such co-operation.”
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