How long uranium can supply nuclear power is affected by the kinds of nuclear reactors that are used (Breeder reactors are sixty times more efficient in using nuclear fuel than current reactors) and the sources of uranium that are used and whether thorium can be used to supplement uranium (Thorium can be turned into uranium in a nuclear reaction).
Uranium from Phosphate
new uranium from phosphate mines are starting up or being restarted. Uranium from phosphate is not included in the current uranium reserve estimate of 5.5 million tons at $80/kg or less and could add another 22 million tons of Uranium. Reserves estimates are still increasing and exploration spending is less than one billion dollars per year.
Thorium is more abundant than Uranium and would extend nuclear fuel supplies
Thorium Power is commercializing thorium fuel rods that can be placed in existing nuclear reactors. Full size thorium/uranium fuel rods going into Russian VVER-1000 reactor by 2010. Thorium, U-235 and zirconium mix. Would allow refueling to occur every 4 years instead of every two years. This would reduce operating downtime for nuclear reactors. India is also commercializing thorium as a fuel for nuclear reactors as a blanket around a fast breeder reactor.
Breeder Reactors – Russian dominance
Russia’s BN-600 breeder reactor has been working since 1981 and generated by itself more commercial electrical power than all world solar power over the same period. BN-600 generates about 3800 GW·h/year, which is over 25 times bigger than Nevado One (one of the largest solar thermal electricity generator plants). It is over 6 times more than all of the solar PV generated in the USA (600 GW-h/year).
Construction has started on Beloyarsk-4 which is the first BN-800, a new, more powerful (880 MWe) FBR, which is actually the same overall size as BN-600. It has improved features including fuel flexibility – U+Pu nitride, MOX, or metal, and with breeding ratio up to 1.3. However, during the plutonium disposition campaign it will be operated with a breeding ratio of less than one. It has much enhanced safety and improved economy – operating cost is expected to be only 15% more than VVER. It is capable of burning up to 2 tonnes of plutonium per year from dismantled weapons and will test the recycling of minor actinides in the fuel. Further BN-800 units are planned.
Russia has experimented with several lead-cooled reactor designs, and has used lead-bismuth cooling for 40 years in reactors for its Alfa class submarines. Pb-208 (54% of naturally-occurring lead) is transparent to neutrons. A significant new Russian design is the BREST fast neutron reactor, of 300 MWe or more with lead as the primary coolant, at 540°C, and supercritical steam generators. It is inherently safe and uses a U+Pu nitride fuel. No weapons-grade Pu can be produced (since there is no uranium blanket), and spent fuel can be recycled indefinitely, with on-site facilities. A pilot unit is being built at Beloyarsk and 1200 MWe units are planned.
A smaller and newer Russian design is the Lead-Bismuth Fast Reactor (SVBR) of 75-100 MWe. This is an integral design, with the steam generators sitting in the same Pb-Bi pool at 400-480°C as the reactor core, which could use a wide variety of fuels. The unit would be factory-made and shipped as a 4.5m diameter, 7.5m high module, then
installed in a tank of water which gives passive heat removal and shielding. A power station with 16 such modules is expected to supply electricity at lower cost than any other new Russian technology as well as achieving inherent safety and high proliferation resistance. (Russia built 7 Alfa-class submarines, each powered by a compact 155 MWt Pb-Bi cooled reactor, and 70 reactor-years operational experience
was acquired with these.)
Russian plans call for BN-800 to be commissioned by 2012, and the work on the next fast neutron reactor, BN-1800, to start immediately after that. [1800MW version of a fast breeder] BN-1800 is expected to be completed 2018-2020.
India has started construction of a 500MW thorium fast breeder. Thorium blanket bred into uranium.
Started construction of a 500 MW prototype fast breeder reactor at Kalpakkam and this is now under construction by BHAVINI. The unit is expected to be operating in 2010, fuelled with uranium-plutonium oxide (the reactor-grade Pu being from its existing PHWRs). It will have a blanket with thorium and uranium to breed fissile U-233 and plutonium respectively. This will take India’s ambitious thorium program to stage 2, and set the scene for eventual full utilization of the country’s abundant thorium to fuel reactors. Four more such fast reactors have been announced for construction by 2020. Initial FBRs will be have mixed oxide fuel but these will be followed by metallic-fuelled ones to enable shorter doubling time.
In India, at the Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research a 40 MWt fast breeder test reactor (FBTR) has been operating since 1985. In addition, the tiny Kamini there is employed to explore the use of thorium as nuclear fuel, by breeding fissile U-233.
In 2002 the regulatory authority issued approval to start construction of a 500 MWe prototype fast breeder reactor (PFBR) at Kalpakkam and this is now under construction by BHAVINI. It is expected to be operating in 2010, fuelled with uranium-plutonium oxide (the reactor-grade Pu being from its existing PHWRs) and with a thorium blanket to breed fissile U-233. This will take India’s ambitious
thorium program to stage 2, and set the scene for eventual full utilisation of the country’s abundant thorium to fuel reactors. Four more such fast reactors have been announced for construction by 2020. Initial Indian FBRs will be have mixed oxide fuel but these will be followed by metallic-fuelled ones to enable shorter doubling time.
In China, a 65 MWt fast neutron reactor – the Chinese Experimental Fast Reactor (CEFR) – is under construction near Beijing and due to achieve criticality in 2008. There has been some Russian assistance in its development. R&D on fast neutron reactors started in 1964. A 600 MWe prototype fast reactor is envisaged by 2020 and there is talk of a 1500 MWe one by 2030. CNNC expects the technology to become
predominant by mid century.
Phénix, 1973, France, 233 MWe, restarted 2003 for experiments on transmutation of nuclear waste, scheduled end of life 2014
Jōyō, 1977-1997, 2003-, Japan
BN-600, 1981, Russia, 600 MWe, scheduled end of life 2010
FBTR, 1985, India, 40 MWt
Monju reactor, 300MWe, in Japan. was closed in 1995 following a serious sodium leak and fire. It is expected to reopen in 2008.
PFBR, Kalpakkam, India, 500 MWe. Planned to open 2010
China Experimental Fast Reactor, 65 MWt, planned 2009
BN-800, Russia, planned 2012
In design phase
JSFR, Japan, project for a 1500 MWe reactor begin in 2010
KALIMER, 600 MWe, South Korea, projected 2030
Generation IV reactor US-proposed international effort, after 2030
Brian Wang is a Futurist Thought Leader and a popular Science blogger with 1 million readers per month. His blog Nextbigfuture.com is ranked #1 Science News Blog. It covers many disruptive technology and trends including Space, Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, Medicine, Anti-aging Biotechnology, and Nanotechnology.
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