The History and Future of Breeder Reactors

By Sharryn Dotson, Editor

There are four countries in the world that currently have operating fast breeder nuclear reactors: China, Japan, India and Russia. That total is down from nine countries, including the U.S., that had operating breeder reactors, some since the 1950s, according to World Nuclear Association (WNA).

Why the decline in the use of breeder reactors? It helps to understand how the reactor works to understand why some countries decided to abandon their programs, while others have not only expanded their use of the reactors, but improved on the technology over the years.

WNA defines a fast breeder reactor as one that produces more fissile material than it consumes. If the reactors burn more fuel than they produce, they are burner reactors, which are the general types of technology seen around the world. Many breeder reactors use plutonium or uranium as fuel, but some can also burn thorium or mixed oxide (MOX) fuels. Fast neutron reactors cannot use water for cooling because collisions with the hydrogen nuclei in water quickly remove most of the kinetic energy from the neutrons, and the fissile material in a reactor core must be more concentrated to sustain a chain reaction with fast neutrons, the WNA said.

The 280-MWe Monju fast breeder reactor in Japan was restarted in 2010 after it was shutdown for 15 years. Courtesy: JNC
The 280-MWe Monju fast breeder reactor in Japan was restarted in 2010 after it was shutdown for 15 years. Courtesy: JNC

“Fast breeder reactors are capable of generating more fissile material than consumed,” said Val Aleyaseen, process systems engineer with Candu Energy Inc. in a previous article. “Following an initial load of fertile material, which could be from RU (recovered uranium), DU (depleted uranium), and/or MOX, the neutron economy is high enough to breed more fissile fuel. This would mean that the fuel could eventually be self-sustained and would not require any new material.” Aleyaseen went on to say that capital costs of breeder reactors are estimated to be at least 25 percent more than light water reactors.

The availability of these different types of fuels and technologies has made it difficult or expensive for some countries to maintain a breeder reactor program. The U.S., Germany and the U.K. have all largely abandoned their breeder reactor programs, while France and Kazakhstan have shut down reactors but continue to research and develop reactor technologies. Japan has two that have been operating since 1978 and 2010. Russia has one currently in operations and one that is in the process of fuel loading. China has a breeder reactor that has also been in operations since 2010.

The cost of developing the reactors was also a reason that countries have stopped working on the technology. The U.S. reported that it spent $15 billion in 2007 dollars; Japan, $12 billion; U.K., $8 billion; Germany, $6 billion and Italy, $5 billion.

Researchers with the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) are evaluating the different breeder reactor technologies as one among many that could comprise a balanced portfolio of research and development investments to provide energy generation options if and, when needed, and at the scale needed.

Russia's Beloyarsk nuclear power plant is home to two fast breeder reactors, one of which is expected to begin operations in 2014. Courtesy: Wikipedia
Russia’s Beloyarsk nuclear power plant is home to two fast breeder reactors, one of which is expected to begin operations in 2014. Courtesy: Wikipedia

“EPRI’s role is not to sell people on one reactor over another or pick winners and losers, but rather to provide evidence-based information and analysis to support the prioritization and long-range planning needed to take concepts from idea to commercial viability,” said Andrew Sowder, senior technical leader with EPRI.

Sowder said his current research, in collaboration with Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, is focused on developing and applying decision support tools that can be used by stakeholders to evaluate technologies against their own criteria and against existing energy systems.

EPRI is including sodium-cooled fast reactors (SFRs) in its own feasibility assessments. “One compelling aspect of the sodium-cooled fast reactor is the extensive experience globally with the technology, spanning more than five decades and twenty or so experimental and demonstration reactors,” said Sowder. “The basic technology has been demonstrated. You can look around the world and find SFRs in operation today.”

EPRI’s international engagement has helped with its research on advanced reactors. “EPRI interacts with the international vendor and utility communities because they are the ones who will need to build and operate these things,” Sowder said. “For example, we have interacted with AREVA as they operate a number of nuclear fuel cycle facilities, such as the reprocessing center at La Hague, that are relevant to transitioning to advanced nuclear fuel cycles such as those employing fast reactors. We are also beginning to reach out to counterparts in the United Kingdom given the active pursuit of new nuclear generation there and the current interest in credible technology option assessments.”

Sowder said fast breeder reactors are likely still decades away from being deployed commercially in the U.S. even with a robust R&D program and long-term commitment, not just because of technological uncertainties, but due to regulatory advancements that need to occur in parallel to license any new reactor technology.

“The way to a technology’s maturation is basic research, development, demonstration and commercialization,” he said. “The technology, even while it is being demonstrated, will still have some issues.” For example, one challenge involves managing the use of the sodium as a coolant, which burns in air and reacts violently when it comes in contact with water, a challenge that Sowder says is manageable technically but clearly present concerns for the operator and regulator.

“The challenge for commercializing any new nuclear technology is the mindset that comes with the long time frames involved,” Sowder said. “If you really want an option available by, say, 2050, you need to start working toward that goal now.”

Some countries are working toward the goal of developing fast neutron reactors. France is developing its 600-MWe Advanced Sodium Technological Reactor for Industrial Demonstration (Astrid) prototype; and Allegro, a 50-MWT to 100-MWt gas-cooled fast reactor. Belgium’s SCK.CEN is planning the Multipurpose Hybrid Research Reactor for High-tech Applications (MYRRHA) 57-MWt research reactor to be the pilot reactor at the ALFRED project, or the Advanced Lead Fast Reactor European Demonstrator.

GE's PRISM sodium-cooled reactor was first developed in 1981. Courtesy: GE Energy
GE’s PRISM sodium-cooled reactor was first developed in 1981. Courtesy: GE Energy

GE-Hitachi (GEH) has created an advanced nuclear reactor called the Power Reactor Inherently Safe Module, or PRISM. It is a sodium-cooled reactor that can burn recycled used nuclear fuel, depleted uranium, and fuel that had not been used. It will also shut itself down without any human intervention and will generate heat that can be removed without fans, automatic systems or manual removal, according to Eric Loewen, chief consulting engineer – Advanced Plants with GEH.

The U.S. government started a large-cooled reactor program back in 1971 under President Nixon, but it was canceled in 1983. GE developed the initial concept of PRISM in 1981 before it was picked up at the U.S. Advanced Liquid Reactor Program, Loewen said. Eight other U.S. companies helped to further develop PRISM.

“We have kept to the same principles and essence of the first design made back in 1981,” Loewen said.

While the reactor is a fast spectrum reactor, it would be configured to burn plutonium stockpiles if picked for the Sellafield site in the UK, Loewen said.

As breeder reactors are more developed over time and companies find innovative ways to use them, costs can potentially decrease and more countries may be willing to restart or begin breeder reactor programs.

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Sharryn graduated from Wayne State University in Detroit, Mich. In 2006 with a B.A. in journalism. After graduation, she worked at The News-Star newspaper in Monroe, La. In 2007, Sharryn moved to Tulsa, Okla. and worked as an associate producer with the local NBC television affiliate. She worked online for the station’s website where she posted reporter’s stories and videos. In June 2009, Sharryn took the Online Editor position with PennWell for Power Engineering magazine, where she produces two weekly electronic newsletters, posts daily news content to the website, and serves as Chairwoman for the Power Engineering Project of the Year awards.

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