India nearing completion of 500 MW commercial fast breeder reactor

India plans to commission its first fast breeder reactor (FBR) by the end of this year at Kalpakkam in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. India’s Prototype Fast Breed Reactor will produce 500MW of power.

India would be the second country worldwide to have a commercial reactor currently produce power through a fast-breeder reactor. Russia owns the other commercially run FBR, the Beloyarsk Nuclear Plant. Countries such as the US, France, and Japan have also experimented with fast breeder technology programmes. France had a commercial fast breeder (Superphenix reactor) from 1985 to 1998.

India’s nuclear power program has been focused on developing an advanced heavy-water thorium cycle, based on converting abundant thorium-232 into fissile uranium-233. The first stage of this employs PHWRs fuelled by natural uranium, and light water reactors, to produce plutonium. Stage two uses fast neutron reactors burning the plutonium to breed U-233 from thorium. The blanket around the core will have uranium as well as thorium, so that further plutonium (ideally high-fissile Pu) is produced as well as the U-233. Then in stage three, advanced heavy water reactors burning the U-233 and this plutonium as driver fuels, but utilising thorium as their main fuel, and getting about two thirds of their power from the thorium.

A 500 MWe prototype fast breeder reactor (PFBR) is under construction at Kalpakkam and was expected to be operating late in 2014, fueled with uranium-plutonium oxide. It is now exptected to begin operation in 2018. It will have a blanket with thorium and uranium to breed fissile U-233 and plutonium respectively. Initial FBRs will have mixed oxide fuel or carbide fuel but these will be followed by metallic fueled ones to enable shorter doubling time.

The PFBR 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.

India is also developing mixed carbide fuels for FNRs (U-Pu-C-N-O). Carbide fuel in FBTR has reached 125,000 MWd/t burn-up without failure, and has been reprocessed at pilot scale. It envisages metal fuels after 2020.

Russian BN800

BN-800 fuel was designed to be MOX, but due to delayed supplies it is about 80% uranium oxide plus up to 100 vibropacked MOX assemblies and 66 pelletised MOX ones (of 565 total). The average plutonium content in the MOX fuel will be 22%. In 2019 it will change over fully to pelletised MOX fuel when a new fuel plant is completed. It does not have a breeding blanket, though a version designed for Sanming in China allows for up to 198 DU fuel elements in a blanket. It has three loops containing 910 t sodium in total, outlet primary coolant temperature is 547°C. The secondary circuit also uses sodium, at 505°C to give steam temperature 470°C. Service life is 40 years. Net thermal efficiency is 39.35% and average fuel burnup is 66 GWd/t with potential increase to 100 GWd/t. It has much enhanced safety and improved economy – while capital cost is 20% more than VVER-1200, operating cost is expected to be only 15% more than VVER. It is capable of burning up to 3 tonnes of plutonium per year from dismantled weapons (1.7 t/yr also quoted by OKBM Afrikantov) and will test the recycling of minor actinides in the fuel.

An important feature of BN-800 closed-loop fuel cycle is that actinides (both plutonium and minor actinides) produced in the reactor are consumed in the same reactor. The reactor fuel cycle in equilibrium accommodates about 5 t plutonium (including 3 t in the core and 2 t in the external fuel cycle), and about 200 kg minor actinides. It is assumed that the reactor core would be recycled 20 times in 40 years of service life, based on 730 equivalent days of a fuel campaign. The main purpose of the BN-800 is to provide operating experience and technological solutions, especially regarding the fuel, that will be applied to the BN-1200.

In 2009 two BN-800 reactors were sold to China. Construction at Sanming is delayed from intended start in 2013 and may happen after 2020.

China fast neutron breeder reactors

A 1000 MWe Chinese prototype fast reactor (CDFR) based on CEFR is envisaged with construction start in 2017 and commissioning as the next step in CIAE’s program. This will be a three-loop 2500 MWt pool-type, use MOX fuel with average 66 GWd/t burn-up, run at 544°C, have breeding ratio 1.2, with 316 core fuel assemblies and 255 blanket ones, and a 40-year life. This is CIAE’s “project one” CDFR. It will have active and passive shutdown systems and passive decay heat removal. This may be developed into a CCFR of about the same size by 2030, using MOX + actinide or metal + actinide fuel. MOX is seen only as an interim fuel, the target arrangement is metal fuel in closed cycle.

Chinese Demonstration Fast Reactors (CDFR) with construction to start in 2013 and commissioning 2018-19.

The CIAE’s CDFR 1000 is to be followed by a 1200 MWe CDFBR by about 2028, conforming to Gen IV criteria. This will have U-Pu-Zr fuel with 120 GWd/t burn-up and breeding ratio of 1.5, or less with minor actinide and long-lived fission product recycle.

In December 2013 a US Federal Register notice said that the USA had negotiated an agreement with China “that would facilitate the joint development of TWR technology” from TerraPower, including standing wave versions of it. In September 2015 CNNC and TerraPower signed an agreement to work towards building a prototype 600 MWe TWR unit in China, apparently over 2018 to 2023. A commercial version, still called the Travelling Wave Reactor, would be 1150 MWe. See fuller description below.

CIAE projections show fast reactors progressively increasing from 2020 to at least 200 GWe by 2050, and 1400 GWe by 2100.