Russia continues sustained fast breeder reactor effort

On June 26, 2014, the 60th anniversary of the start of the 5 MWe Obninsk reactor that was the first reactor in the world to routinely supply electricity to a commercial power grid, Russia started up the latest in a series of sodium-cooled fast reactors, the BN-800.

This new nuclear plant is an evolutionary refinement of the successful BN-600 that has been operating in Russia since 1980 and “is said to have the best operating and production record of all Russia’s nuclear power units.”

Here is a quote from a promotional brochure about the project published in 2011 by Atomenergoproekt, the joint stock company that built the power plant.

BN-800 power unit (under design) for Beloyarskaya NPP accommodates all principal concepts and solutions used in its predecessor BN-600, substantiated by over 20 years of its successful operation at high performance (capacity factor 80% at efficiency 42%).

BN-800 Power Unit is designed primarily for the production of heat and energy. The Power Unit as part of the grid operates with constant rated load (basic mode).

However, BN-800 characteristics and physical features dictate its multi-purpose usage. Viz, the reactor is used for:

  • electric and heat power generation
  • plutonium consumption and, if necessary, production
  • processing of long-lived supertransuranics accumulated in the radwastes of reactor of any type
  • production of isotopes.

No other reactor type combines so wide a range of functions.

Equipment of the reactor and its system involved in the handling of fuel assemblies containing isotopes and supertransuranics is designed to perform the above-mentioned functions.

The system builds off some of the successes of fast reactors designed and operated in Russia and the rest of the world and also incorporates features that avoid some of the characteristics that have led to failures in fast reactor programs. In other words, the BN-800 is the result of learning and the progress that can be made with sustained effort in any challenging, but potentially rewarding field of endeavor.

As shown in the below process heat flow diagram, the BN-800 uses a large pool of sodium and three separate heat transfer systems to provide passive safety. This is a concept that is similar to the one that was well-proven in more than 30 years of operation and testing at EBR-II and at previous BN-series reactors.

BN-800 Process Heat Flow Diagram

BN-800 Process Heat Flow Diagram

The BN-series reactors continue to use oxide fuels because they have achieved reasonably good results with that type of fuel and the responsible designers do not see any compelling reason to change. My friends who remain strong advocates of the Integral Fast Reactor have convinced me that a new fast reactor program started today should carefully consider the use of metal alloy fuels because they enable the use of an improved pyroprocessing technique for recycling the used fuel rods. It would be more difficult for a program that has a large investment in the capital equipment and human knowledge required for manufacturing and recycling oxide fuels to make that revolutionary technology choice.

While reading a terrific biography of Leo Szilard titled “Genius in the Shadows”, I found the following quote that illustrates the confused view of nuclear energy that is prevalent among the portion of the American intelligentsia that write books and perform historical research and commentary. It is relevant to this story about incremental progress in fast breeder reactor development.

Szilard’s faith in the peaceful benefits of atomic energy has certainly been rewarded in the development of medical technology, although his hope that nuclear power would help developing countries to prosper has proven impractical. Overstated, too, was Szilard’s faith in his breeder reactor, which has proven to be a dangerous and costly electricity producer in every country that has tried to build one.

My answer to the author of that passage is that virtually every technology ever devised by man would have been considered a costly failure if the inventor gave up after trying to “build one“. As the old schoolyard saying goes, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”

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