China and Russia working on fast neutron reactors

1. China’s experimental fast neutron reactor has been connected to the electricity grid.

The sodium-cooled, pool-type fast reactor has been constructed with some Russian assistance at the China Institute of Atomic Energy (CIEA), near Beijing, which undertakes fundamental research on nuclear science and technology. The reactor has a thermal capacity of 65 MW and can produce 20 MW in electrical power. The CEFR was built by Russia’s OKBM Afrikantov in collaboration with OKB Gidropress, NIKIET and Kurchatov Institute.

Beyond the pilot plant, China once planned a 600 MWe commercial scale version by 2020 and a 1500 MWe version in 2030 but these ambitious ideas have been overtaken by the import of ready-developed Russian designs.

Two Russian BN-800 reactors are to start construction in August 2011, probably at a coastal site. The project is expected to lead to bilateral cooperation of fuel cycles for fast reactors, which promise to vastly extend the fuel value of uranium as well as reduce radioactive wastes.

Unlike most of the reactors used today for nuclear power generation, fast neutron reactors make maximum use of uranium resources by generating a certain amount more fuel than they consume. They do this by using fast neutrons to ‘burn up’ uranium and plutonium mixed oxide (MOX) fuel, which can be surrounded by a uranium ‘blanket’ in which slightly more plutonium is created than is used. The MOX fuel uses the plutonium recovered when used fuel, including that from conventional light water reactors, is reprocessed.

2. American safety regulators have approved a longer period of operation for the Hope Creek nuclear power plant as well as the start of a new uranium mine.

The Hope Creek nuclear power plant may now operate until April 2046. The reactor produces 1031 MWe.

Another nuclear utility, DTE Energy, yesterday announced it would apply for the same kind of extension for its Fermi 2 plant. This started in 1985 and currently holds a licence to generate 1215 MWe until 2025. DTE has notified the NRC that it plans to submit an application in 2014 to extend that by 20 years, using the intervening time to prepare by evaluating environmental impact as well as plant systems and structures.

Uranerz Energy received a positive decision from the NRC regarding its proposed Nichols Ranch uranium mine, which is now licensed for construction and operation. It could produce up to 770 tonnes of uranium per year.

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