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DOES THE FAST BREEDER REACTOR HAVE A FUTURE
A massive 8.9-magnitude earthquake hit northeast Japan on 11 March 2011, causing and a 33-feet (10-meter) tsunami along parts of the country's coastline. The disaster damaged the cooling systems of three of the six General Electric nuclear-power reactors at the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear-power plant, causing nuclear meltdowns and releases of radioactive materials. The Fukushima disaster is the largest nuclear accident since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.
Before the accident happened many countries were planning to acquire nuclear-power reactors, or to increase the number they operate, in the belief that nuclear energy will give them a more secure supply of energy, one that will emit less greenhouse gases than fossil-fuelled power stations and, therefore, contribute proportionately less to global warming. But after the Fukushima accident some countries are reconsidering their nuclear policies.
In Europe, some countries have put their nuclear power plans on hold; some are reviewing them; some, including Belgium, Germany and Switzerland, have decided to scrap nuclear power entirely; and some, like the UK, seem intent on going ahead with their nuclear programs. In Asia, China and India are forging ahead with ambitious programs to construct and operate nuclear-power reactors. Japan, not very surprisingly, is rethinking its nuclear policy. And so is the USA. According to a draft copy of the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) 2011 World Energy Outlook, the Fukushima disaster could lead to a 15-percent fall in world nuclear power generation by 2035.
However, in spite of worries about the safety of nuclear-power reactors, enhanced by the accident at Fukushima, a significant long-term increase in the global use of nuclear power for electricity generation, known as a nuclear renaissance, will probably go ahead.
Nuclear enthusiasts believe that fast breeder reactors (FBRs) will play a key role in the nuclear future. Are they right? Not according to a research report, entitled Fast Breeder Reactor Programs: History and Status (1), recently published by the authoritative International Panel on Fissile Materials (IPFM) (2).
The IPFM report is in seven sections. The first gives an overview of plutonium breeder reactor programs. This is followed by separate studies of the six countries (France, India, Japan, the USSR-Russia, the UK, and the United States) that have in the past constructed breeder reactors or which are now operating them.
China does not get a section of its own in the report even though it is operating, for research and development purposes, a small sodium-cooled fast reactor, the China Experimental Fast Reactor. The CETR, built with some Russian assistance at the China Institute of Atomic Energy (CIEA), near Beijing, can generate 20 million watts (20 MWe) of electricity.
American scientists working in the atomic bomb program (the Manhattan project), during the Second World War, first raised the possibility of a nuclear reactor, fuelled with plutonium, that produces more nuclear fuel than it consumes, a breeder reactor. A family of breeder reactors will, in time, become almost self-sufficient in fuel, requiring only a small input of uranium.
Following the Second World War, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Japan and India followed the United States in establishing plutonium breeder reactor programs. Belgium, Italy and the Netherlands became partners in the French and German programs.
So far, nineteen pilot and demonstration FBRs have been built: three in France; two in India; two in Japan; five in USSR/Russia; two in the UK; and five in the USA. Only five of them are still in operation; two in India; one in Japan; and two in USSR/Russia;
As described in the IPFM report, these FBR programs were driven by the vision of satisfying an escalating demand for energy by the large-scale use of nuclear energy to generate electricity. At the time, it was thought that uranium was scarce and “high-grade deposits would quickly become depleted if fission power will deployed on a large scale”. The vision could, therefore, be supported only by the use of other types of reactors – i.e. breeder reactors – that would not require much uranium.
It turned out, however, that uranium is more abundant than was originally thought. Moreover, the growth of nuclear power slowed considerably in the late 1980s and “the global nuclear capacity is today about one-tenth the level that had been projected in the early 1970s”. And so interest in the FBR declined.
According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the known recoverable uranium resources are 4.7 million tones. As of 11 October 2011, the world’s nuclear-power reactors consumed uranium at the rate of 62,552 tonnes a year. If this rate stays constant, known uranium reserves will last for less than 70 years (3).
The quality of the uranium ores is, in practice, more important than the quantity. The quality can be measured in terms of the net energy, which is the energy produced per tonne of uranium nuclear fuel minus the energy used to produce the reactor fuel elements to be used in the reactor, including that used for mining, refining, and enriching the uranium and manufacturing the fuel elements.
If the usual purpose of increasing the use of nuclear power is to meet energy needs while mitigating climate change, the quality of the world’s uranium resources is much more important than the quantity of them resources, at least for as long as fissile fuels are used to drive the uranium mining and reactor fuel production process.
According to calculations made by Jan Willem Storm van Leeuwen (4 and 5), assuming the world nuclear capacity remains constant at 372 gigawatts of electricity (GWe), the net energy from uranium will fall to zero by about the year 2070. Any increase in the use of nuclear power will, of course, result in the net energy from uranium falling to zero by an earlier date.
The dispute about the world’s resources of low-cost uranium has yet to be satisfactorily resolved. Nevertheless, the debate about the nature of any nuclear renaissance and the need for breeder reactor programs goes on. In India, Russia, and China, for example, there are considerable concerns about supplies of uranium in the short-term and new experimental breeder reactors are being constructed.
The nuclear industry, not very surprisingly, is very enthusiastic about the future of FBRs, hoping that they will be used commercially after about 2050.
Apart from the uranium issue the IPFM report lists a number of serious problems with FBRs. They are expensive to build and operate. “Few if any argue today that the capital costs of breeder reactors could be less than 25 percent higher” than that for ordinary reactors of “similar generating capacity. This would be a capital cost difference on the order of $1000 per kilowatt of generating capacity”.
The second problem with FBRs is that they have special safety problems. The coolant (to carry the heat away from the reactor core) that has been used in all experimental breeder reactors is a liquid metal that melts at relatively low temperatures – namely sodium. Sodium is a very difficult substance to deal with. It reacts violently with water and catches on fire if it is exposed to air. A large fraction of the liquid-sodium-cooled reactors that have been built have been shut down for long periods because of sodium fires.
Another problem is that sodium-cooled reactors have serious reliability problems. The IPFM report explains that the reliability of ordinary reactors is such that now, “on average, they operate at about 80 per cent of their generating capacity. By contrast a large fraction of sodium-cooled demonstration reactors have been shut down most of the time that they should have been generating electric power”.
A significant part of the problem with FBRs “has been the difficulty of maintaining and repairing the reactor hardware that is immersed in sodium. The requirement to keep air from coming into contact with sodium makes refueling and repair inside the reactor vessel more complicated and lengthy” than for conventional reactors. “During repairs the fuel has to be removed, the sodium drained and the entire system flushed carefully to remove residual sodium without causing an explosion. This process can take months or even years”. The maintenance and repair of ordinary reactors is comparatively straightforward.
The history of breeder reactors shows that they have severe reliability problems. France’s Superphenix, the world’s only commercial-sized breeder reactor, began operating “in January 1986 but was shut down more than half the time until it was shut down in December 1996”. Japan’s Monju and the UK’s Dounreay and Prototype Fast Reactors and the US Enrico Fermi I demonstration breeder reactors were also subject to long shutdowns. Russia’s BN-600 has worked reasonably well but only “because of the willingness of its operators to continue to operate it despite multiple sodium fires”.
Ordinary nuclear reactors rely on nuclear fission, in which a nucleus (usually of uranium) splits into two or more smaller nuclei. During this process energy is released which is used to generate heat which produces steam from water; the steam is used to drive a turbine to generate electricity. When a uranium nucleus fissions it produces two or more neutrons that can be used to fission other uranium nuclei, releasing more neutrons, to produce a sustainable chain reaction.
The neutrons produced by fission move very rapidly – they are fast neutrons. Fast neutrons are not as efficient at causing fission as neutrons that move more slowly. In normal nuclear reactors the fast neutrons are slowed down by a ‘moderator’ – water or a gas like helium. The fission neutrons are slowed down by collisions with atoms of the moderator as they pass through it.
A fast breeder reactor, however, uses a coolant that is not a good moderator, like liquid sodium, so that the neutrons remain fast ones. Although fast neutrons are less good at causing fission, they can be easily captured by nuclei of an isotope of uranium, namely uranium-238, producing uranium-239. Uranium-239 undergoes radioactive decay to become plutonium-239. This plutonium isotope can be separated chemically in a reprocessing plant and, being fissile, can be used as reactor fuel. Breeder reactors are designed to produce more nuclear fuel (plutonium) than they consume. Plutonium-239, however, can also be used to fabricate effective nuclear weapons.
If the world comes to rely on FBRs very large amounts of plutonium will be in circulation. Any country that chooses to operate FBRs in the future will have relatively easy access to plutonium, of a type usable as the fissile material in the most efficient nuclear weapons, and will have competent physicists and engineers that could deign and fabricate them.
Because they could produce a nuclear-weapon force in a short time – weeks rather than months – these countries would be regarded as latent nuclear-weapon powers. It must be expected that some of them will take the political decision to become actual nuclear-weapon powers. There will also be a much increased risk that terrorists will acquire plutonium, fabricate a nuclear weapon and detonate it.
The IPFM concludes that: “After six decades and the expenditure of the equivalent of tens of billions of dollars, the promise of breeder reactors remains largely unfulfilled and efforts to commercialize them have been steadily cut back in most countries. The breeder reactor dream is not dead but it has receded far into the future. In the 1970s, breeder advocates were predicting that that the world would have thousands of breeder reactors operating by now. Today, they are predicting commercialization by approximately 2050. In the meantime, the world has to deal with the legacy of the dream; approximately 250 tonnes of separated weapon-usable plutonium and ongoing – although in some cases struggling – reprocessing programs in France, India, Japan, Russia and the United Kingdom”.
Only Russia and India remain players in the game – they are building demonstration breeder reactors, two in India and three in Russia. Japan remains officially committed to FBRs but their commercialization date has receded into the far future; it is now 2025. Japan’s Monju fast-breeder reactor began operating in 1994. But it has been plagued by a series of serious problems, including a leak of sodium coolant that started a fire in 1995. Although the reactor resumed operations in May 2010 it experienced further problems and was suspended three months later. The Japanese government may soon scrap Monju. As the IPFM report concludes, “the breeder reactor dream is not dead but has receded far into the future”.
1. International Panel on Fissile Materials, Fast Breeder Reactor Programs: History and Status, IPFM Research Report 8, February 2010.
2. International Panel on Fissile Materials, founded in 2006, is an independent group of arms control; and nonproliferation experts from seventeen countries, including nuclear-weapon and non-nuclear-weapon states. Its mission is to analyze the technical basis for practical and achievable policy initiatives to secure, consolidate, and reduce stockpiles of highly enriched uranium and plutonium.
3. World Nuclear Association, Nuclear Power in the World Today; World Nuclear Power Reactors & Uranium Requirements, 21 October 2011. www.world-nuclear.org/info/inf01.html
4. Storm van Leeuwen, J. W, Into the Unknown, fuelling civil nuclear power? In Barnaby, F. and Kemp, J (eds.), Secure Energy, Civil Nuclear Power, Security and Global Warming, March 2007, London, Oxford Research Group.
5. Österreichisches Ökologie Institut (Austrian Institute of Ecology) and Austrian Energy Agency, Energy Balance of Nuclear Power Generation. Vienna, 2011.
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About the Author
Charles F Barnaby
Frank Barnaby, a nuclear physicist, worked at the: Atomic Weapons Research Establishment, Aldermaston (1951-57); University College, London
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