Russia’s BN-800 fast reactor prepares to burn minor actinides

5 December 2023

Public hearings have been held in Russia’s Sverdlovsk region on justification of a licence to use nuclear materials during research to be undertaken by the BN-800 sodium-cooled fast neutron reactor at unit 4 of the Beloyarsk NPP. The materials made available for discussion included a preliminary environmental impact assessment.

This is part of Rosatom’s roadmap for the development of nuclear technologies for the coming century including the possibility of eliminating minor actinides using BN reactors. This would reduce the volume and radio-toxicity of radioactive waste generated during NPP destined for final disposal. The planned research is the first step in the technical implementation of the afterburning of minor actinides using the BN-800 reactor unit and later the development and application of similar technologies at the BN-1200 reactor planned for Beloyarsk unit 5.

Taking part in the hearings were: Vadim Lemekhov, General Designer of Russia’s Breakthrough (Proryv) project, which is intended to demonstrate closed fuel cycle technology; Mikhail Skupov, Deputy Director General of the AA Bochvar Research Institute of Inorganic Materials (VNIIINM); and Artem Kuznetsov design engineer at key design bureau OKBM of Afrikantov. Also present were Andrey Zakhartsev, head of the Zarechny district, deputies of the city Duma (parliament), members of the Public Chamber of Zarechny, residents of the Zarechny urban district and other settlements.

Including those present in the hall and others watching live broadcasts on the Internet, attendees totalled 1,456 people. They heard presentations by experts from the Research Institute of Ecology Problems, the Breakthrough project, Beloyarsk NPP, the Ural Federal University UrFU), and health unit No 32 of the Federal Medical & Biological Agency (FMBA), as well as representatives of the public.

Beloyarsk NPP Director Ivan Sidorov said fast neutron reactors have three huge advantages – they can recycle used nuclear fuel, they can use fuel that utilised uranium tailings from enrichment production, and they can burn minor actinides from the used fuel of other reactors. “In order to realise the third advantage of fast reactors on an industrial scale, we need to conduct research work on the BN-800. The team of highly qualified specialists at the Beloyarsk NPP, which has vast experience in operating fast neutron reactors, will make a key contribution to solving this problem.”

Breakthrough’s Lemekhov emphasised the importance of research to solve the promising problems of nuclear energy on a state and global scale and the indispensability of the BN-800 for this work. Igor Polishchuk, head of Beloyarsk NPP’s Radiation Safety Department, gave assurances that there would be no negative impact on either the population or the environment.

Oleg Tashlykov. Professor for NPPs and renewable energy sources at UrFU, explained that used fuel is highly radioactive because of the major actinides contained in it (uranium and plutonium), the minor actinides (neptunium, americium and curium) and fission products. Long-lived actinides and fission products are considered high-level waste and must be localised and isolated in deep geological formations for hundreds of thousands of years.

Processing can remove plutonium and minor actinides from the used fuel. Transmutation can then destroy transuranic elements (neptunium, plutonium, americium and curium) by fission in a reactor. The most studied transmutation technology involves fast neutron systems. “Recycling actinides in fast reactors provides a significant reduction in the amount of waste and the time needed to reduce radioactivity to the level of natural uranium ore,” he said. “The development of this technology at the BN-800 is an important stage for introducing it on an industrial scale at the BN-1200 reactors planned for serial construction.”

The head of Zarechny Andrey Zakhartsev noted the importance of cooperation between the NPP and the city. Beloyarsk NPP provides significant support for education, culture, sports, landscaping, and social projects, he noted. “The level of support for the Beloyarsk NPP by residents of Zarechny is very high. More than 96% of the population of our urban district have a positive attitude to nuclear energy….We can only welcome the further development of nuclear technology.”

Alexei Yekidin, leading researcher at the Institute of Industrial Ecology of the Ural Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences and a member of the Public Council of Rosatom, said the event was held in accordance with the regulations. “Perhaps in a thousand years no one will remember the public discussions held in Zarechny in November 2023, but they will always remember the moment, when humanity approached the closure of the nuclear fuel cycle and guaranteed itself energy resources for millennia. Today we are participants in this historical event.”

He added that the research planned at the BN-800 “will bring great benefits for the whole of Russia. As a result, a technology will be created that will reduce the volume and radiotoxicity of radioactive waste and eliminate the need to store isotopes of minor actinides for a long time. It will solve a problem not only for us but also for subsequent generations.”

According to federal law, public discussions are mandatory when conducting a state environmental review of a future nuclear power facility. Their main goal is to give the public complete information about the activities of the facility, and its impact on the environment.

Representatives of the public who took part in the hearings noted the quality of the study of the materials presented and supported the conduct of research work at the No. 4 power unit with the BN-800 Beloyarsk NPP reactor, making sure, that these works satisfy safety requirements, especially environmental ones.

Image: Russia’s BN-800 sodium cooled fast reactor at the Beloyarsk nuclear power plant (courtesy of Rosenergoatom)

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