Russian Nuclear reactor progress and UK looking at Fast Reactors

1. World Nuclear News – The first fuel is being loaded into Russia’s newest fast breeder reactor, Beloyarsk 4, in preparation for startup of the unit within months.

Beloyarsk is one of Russia’s oldest nuclear power plant sites. Two prototypes of the RBMK light water graphite-moderated reactors operated at the site from the 1960s until the end of the 1980s, and are now being decommissioned. Beloyarsk 3, a 560 MWe BN-600 fast reactor, has been in commercial operation since 1981.

Beloyarsk 4 is the first-of-a-kind BN-800 unit. Construction initially began in 1986, but was subsequently put on hold and resumed in 2006. At 789 MWe, it will become the most powerful fast reactor in operation. The Beloyarsk site has also been earmarked for the future construction of two BN-1200 fast reactors, currently being developed by designer OKBM Afrikantov.

Fast neutron reactors are typically fuelled using a mixture of oxides of uranium and plutonium, and can vastly increase the efficiency of the nuclear fuel cycle by using the uranium-238 recovered from recycling nuclear fuel after use in conventional nuclear power reactors. They can also be used to burn the long-lived actinides found in high-level nuclear wastes and to dispose of ex-military plutonium.

Fast reactors feature in Russia’s long-term nuclear energy plans, which envisage a move to inherently safe nuclear plants using fast reactors with a closed fuel cycle and mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel. As well as the BN series of reactors, Russia is also developing the lead-cooled BREST fast reactor, the lead-bismuth cooled SVBR and a multi-purpose fast neutron research reactor, the MBIR.

2. World Nuclear News – Construction work is moving on at Russia’s Leningrad II, with contractor Titan-2 reporting achievements in the turbine building, nuclear island and water treatment plant. There has also been progress on unit 2’s containment.

Leningrad II is planned eventually to house four AES-2006 model VVER pressurized water reactors, two of which are under construction and scheduled to begin operation in 2016 and 2018 respectively.

3. Technology Review – Pressure to reduce the U.K.’s plutonium stockpile, along with generous premiums for new nuclear power generation, is breathing new life into a decades-old reactor design—GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy’s Power Reactor Innovative Small Module, or PRISM, technology. PRISM is a fast reactor, whose speedy neutrons can break down waste from spent nuclear fuel.

GE Hitachi says it can best exploit the U.K.’s plutonium by running it through a pair of PRISM reactors in two stages. First, the reactors would burn plutonium-rich fuel elements for a few months each, raising their level of radioactivity to make the plutonium harder to handle and thus reduce its security risk. When the reactors had worked through the stockpile, the fuel elements could then be cycled through the reactors again for longer passes, generating power for the remainder of their 60-year design life.

Power revenues could be lucrative. The U.K. government recently guaranteed one nuclear developer rates for its power that would be nearly double last year’s average wholesale power price.

The Decommissioning Authority previously rejected PRISM, deciding that it would take too long to deploy. This time around, GE managed to convince the authority that it could build the reactors faster—in 14 to 18 years, rather than the more than 25 years originally anticipated.

Should GE Hitachi get the nod, its next hurdles will be the parallel processes of detailed design and reactor licensing. The latter may be the toughest challenge, according to Peterson. The U.K. shut down its fast-reactor program 20 years ago, and its nuclear regulator has little expertise on related topics such as the use of molten sodium and metallic fuels. As Peterson puts it, “The equipment and personnel are retired. How do you rebuild that capability?

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