France’s Commissariat a l'energie atomique et aux energies alternatives (CEA – Atomic & Alternative Energies Commission) is abandoning plans to build its prototype fast-breeder for the ASTRID (Advanced Sodium Technological Reactor for Industrial Demonstration) project, Le Monde reported on 30 August. 

Some design studies still in progress will continue this year but will be shelved after the 25-person unit coordinating the programme was closed in the spring.   CEA told Le Monde that "the project to build a prototype reactor is not planned in the short or medium term" but will be deferred until " the second half of the century”. According to the Court of Auditors, nearly €738 million ($811m)  had been invested in this plan by the end of 2017, including nearly €500 million as a large loan from the Investments for the Future programme. "We saw preparatory projects stop, and we saw that financing for the prototype no longer appeared in the budgets," said Didier Guillaume, CFDT central union delegate at CEA. 

In November 2018, CEA had already said it was considering reducing Astrid’s capacity from the originally planned 600MW commercial size to a 100-200MW research model. CEA’s recent decision confirms reports in the Japanese press last November that the French government had informed Japan it would halt their joint development of ASTRID. Japan cancelled its own €7.8 billion Monju prototype fast-breeder project in 2016 due to heavy costs and had viewed ASTRID as central to its plans to recycle used fuel.

ASTRID, a sodium-cooled fast reactor prototype was to be built at the Marcoule nuclear site in the Gard to make possible the use depleted uranium and plutonium as fuel in order to reuse used fuel mostly stored at the La Hague site, operated by Orano (formerly Areva). Astrid was also expected to reduce the amount of long-lived nuclear waste. CEA told Reuters it would propose a new programme for ASTRID’s development   later this year.

France has a history of failed fast reactor projects. ASTRID was to be the successor to France’s three experimental fast reactors – Rapsodie, Phenix, and Superphenix – all of which have been decommissioned. Construction of the 22 MWt Rapsodie started in 1962 and it went critical in 1967. At the end of 1967, its power was increased to 24 MWt, and in 1970, after core redesign, to 40 MWt. It operated until 1983, when it was shut down permanently. Phénix was a 233 MWe (590 MWt) prototype fast breeder reactor, located at the Marcoule. It was a pool-type liquid-metal fast breeder reactor cooled with liquid sodium. Phénix ran without problems through the 1970s and 1980s, but in the early 1990s  experiencedunexplained behaviours, including large power transients. After 2004, it was used to investigate transmutation of nuclear waste and also generated some electricity. Phénix closed in 2009.

The 1,242 MWe Superphénix was intended to reprocess nuclear fuel from   conventional nuclear reactors, while also generating its own power. Construction began in 1974 but cost overruns, delays and public protests delayed grid connection until 1986. It was powered down in 1996 for maintenance, and while closed faced court challenges that prevented its restart and it was closed permanently.

Currently only two industrial-grade fast reactors are in operation – the BN-600 and BN-800 at Russia’s   Beloyarsk NPP. A few other countries, including China and India, have operational experimental installations with fast-breeder reactors.