China Fast Nuclear Reactor Progressing Towards Commercial Operation

China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) successfully completed a 100 percent power manual emergency shutdown test of the China Experimental Fast Reactor (CEFR) on July 31.

CEFR is a 65 MW thermal, 20 MW electric, sodium-cooled, pool-type reactor with a 30-year design lifetime and a target burnup of 100 MWd/kg.

China started building a 600 megawatt fast reactor based upon the CEFR technology. The construction of the 600 MWe Xiapu fast reactor pilot project started in late 2017. The reactor will have an output of 1500 MWth thermal power and 600 MW electric power. There are also plans for a second 600 MW fast reactor and a 600 MW HTR-PM600 and four 1000 MW CAP1000 are proposed at the Fujian site.

The CFR600 demonstration fast reactor (CDFR) is the next step in China Institute of Atomic Energy’s (CIAE’s) programme operation envisaged from about 2023. This will be 1500 MWt, 600 MWe, with 41% thermal efficiency, using MOX fuel with 100 GWd/t burn-up, and with two sodium coolant loops producing steam at 480°C. Later fuel will be metal with burn-up 100-120 GWd/t. Most pressure water reactors have fuel burn-up (an efficiency measure) at 50-70 GWd/t while older versions were at 45 GWd/t.

GWd/t means gigawatt days per ton. A one gigawatt fast reactor would need 3.65 tons of uranium per year at 100 GWd/t while an older regular gigawatt reactor needing 7.3 tons of uranium per year with 50 GWd/t efficiency.

Breeding ratio is about 1.1, design operational lifetime 40 years. It is to have active and passive shutdown systems and passive decay heat removal.

China was going to build two 800 MWe Russian fast neutron reactors, but that project was suspended.

China plans a commercial CFR1000 1000-1200 MWe fast reactor that might be completed in mid-2030. It would use metal U-Pu-Zr fuel and have 120-150 GWd/t burn-up.

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

The development is just steady progress to technology that would be double and potential three times as efficient with nuclear fuel. It is like going from 20 miles per gallon to 40 miles per gallon and eventually 60 mpg and maybe more. If China makes the transition that they are talking about then by around 2040 they can use these reactors to close the fuel cycle.

Closing the fuel cycle means there would be virtually no nuclear waste or unburned fuel. The plan would involve regular reactors, fast reactors and offsite reprocessing (recycling of fuel) facilities. Fast reactors means the designs generates neutrons that are a hundred to a thousand times faster to split the even numbered isotopes of uranium. Unburned nuclear fuel is mainly Uranium 238 by mass. If you hit Uranium 238 with a fast neutron it briefly becomes Plutonium 239 before splitting.

The impact is there if China follows through makes hundreds of reactors based on this technology. They could leverage this to phase out coal power significantly starting around 2040.

CEFR 20 MWe Tests

The CEFR completed necessary tests and preparations before commissioning and extended commercial operations.

Fast breeder reactors have good breeding and transmutation characteristics. The advanced fuel cycle system in the CEFR can increase the utilization rate of uranium resources up to 70 percent versus conventional nuclear reactors.

China’s fast reactor development is going through three stages
* experimental fast reactor
* a demonstration fast reactor
* then a commercial fast reactor.

The 65 megawatt CEFR achieved criticality for the first time in 2010 and achieved its design goal of 72 hours at full power in 2014.

After the completion of its first overhaul and related debugging tests and other work last year, 1,320 hours of low-power operations test research was carried out.

Written by Brian Wang,

38 thoughts on “China Fast Nuclear Reactor Progressing Towards Commercial Operation”

  1. Cost to enrich uranium used to be very high too, but it’s much cheaper now, with centrifuges instead of diffusion, and liable to get cheaper yet, with lasers. Using a pyroprocessing technique on spent fuel, instead of acids in the Purex process, should be a lot cheaper too – you can do it at each reactor site with a unit the size of a pool table, instead of something like THORP, the size of a couple of football fields. ( Aluminum used to be so expensive to make, Napoleon III of France used it for his imperial cutlery service instead of silver. When a similar electroprocessing technique was developed, it got cheap enough to build cars and planes out of – and throwaway drink cans ). The product won’t be as pure as the aqueous methods – it still has the minor actinides and some fission products in it – but molten salt reactors and metal fuelled, liquid cooled ones aren’t as fussy with their fuel as light water reactors.

  2. About ninety percent of the volume inside Thorcon’s reactor vessel is graphite, which acts as a moderator. Moltex’s, like all fast reactors, wouldn’t need a moderator, so should be considerably smaller. They claim they can get a 1200 MW unit on the back of a truck, Either molten salt design is still much more compact than a water-moderated reactor, mainly because the containment dome has to be big enough to absorb a catastrophic steam explosion.

  3. Personally, I think that the Moltex design is the only one that sounds plausible (although I am not a nuclear engineer). The difficulty of dealing with a highly radioactive molten salt leak with all the other designs sounds tough to get around. I also like Moltex’s design as the motors for the pumps sit in the argon above the pool of coolant salt and if too many of the 4 pumps fail, they can be replaced using the crane system that moves the fuel rods. Cleaning fission products from the fuel salt to prevent corrosion in the non Moltex designs sounds like a non trival challenge as well. I really like the Thorcon idea of building the entire reactor and steam turbine plant in a shipyard and just floating that to the customer country basically as a giant nuclear battery. I wish that Moltex and Thorcon would get together and combine the best bits of each approach.

  4. Only the UK had the AGR, and only three of the four nations in it – no nukes in Northern Ireland. Say what you like about the AGR, it worked, and British emissions are still a lot lower as a result. The ‘angloes’ also developed the Pressurised Water Reactor, the Boiling Water Reactor, and the Canadian Uranium-Deuterium Reactor – plus a few others that worked, but didn’t sell. ‘ Let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend.’

  5. Careful invoking the Ghost of Rickover. If he turns in his grave any faster he’ll be a renewable energy source…

  6. Every component of spent fuel can be used – the actinides to fuel breeder or fast reactors, the longer-lived radioactive fission products for radio-isotope thermal generators, sterilising food or medical products, and breaking down persistent chemical toxins, and the inert FPs as a source for valuable elements like ruthenium, rhodium and palladium. Technetium emits a very long half-life, weak beta. and could stand in for its extremely rare, and heavier, analogue, rhenium, in alloys for jet engines.

  7. Closed cycle helium turbines can operate at efficiencies around 50% at a temperature of around 760C with pressure ratio of about 2.3. The temperature is well within the capabilities of existing materials. Further, materials can be cooled. Combustion gas turbines operate at temperatures approaching 1600C, and use cooling of combustor materials, blades and stators.

  8. The point was that there is no pathway where U-238 + n even transiently becomes Pu-239 during a fast fission, which is what Brian said.

  9. You’d have to spin the lead pretty fast to stop all the fuel salt just floating to the top and going non-critical. A couple hundred tons of red hot, radioactive lead spinning at 1 g might make the safety auditors a little nervous. Putting plumbing around your idea gives you the German vapourware reactor, the Dual Fluid Reactor. Sounds like a nightmare to build and keep leak free though – they propose just a single tube of some super tough alloy spaghetti-ing through the core. Moltex replace the fuel circuit with fuel tubes, similar to those of a pressuried water reactor, to be swapped out every few years. Instead of lead they have another salt as the coolant, with enough hafnium in it to intercept 99.99 percent of the neutrons before they reach the outer wall. Sounds much more doable than the German thing, also coolant is about 550C instead of 1000C, but resident reactor man Scaryjello and some Japanese guys don’t like it much.

  10. Eventually some kind of chemical processing will be need. I think a tube extended into the Molten Salt on occasions to remove waste and to add new fuel would be the way to go.

  11. Any reactor creates radioactive waste when the fissile material is split by neutrons. Reprocessing the used fuel does not get rid of the waste. The chemical reprocessing creates even more radioactive laced waste.

  12. I don’t understand, you mean China is phasing out coal with subsidised nuclear? It’s a long term investment and China’s eying foreign customers. It’s expensive because most of the power stations are one offs or twins. We have to made all the blue prints and mouldings for now. It’s no use accusing China for helping it’s own industry, US and Europe are far worse especially in aeronautical and defense technology in using tax payers money as high tech subsidies.

  13. We shall see how long the shale oil and gas will last, it’s more expensive to extract and process than normal wells, and China has pipelines from Russia and western stans states much cheaper than digging it up herself. China has fracking too, but they are spot drillings spread across the western regions, usually one pipe down and a horizontal line. The reason is to test drill and gather data. It’s for strategic reserves because depending upon outside sources can be problematic if things shifted. Meanwhile, no reason to extract when it is cheaper to buy. It’s better to put efforts and resources on other things we excel in.

  14. China’s cost comes from being dependent on foreign coal, oil and NG. China is 70% defendant on foreign hydrocarbons. US is practically energy independent at this point due to huge NG reserves. China’s dependence is only going to get worse, hence their attempts to mitigate it with nuclear and solar. Only the EU has a larger dependence than China. The US exports twice what it imports and relies on roughly 8-9% of its hydrocarbon consumption from foreign sources.

  15. China has subsidies for nuclear to make them competitive. So realistically they’re going to phase out coal with something that does not require subsidies.

  16. Costs are more than just dollars and cents, if not, China will just stick with coal. PWR is cheaper than sodium fast reactors but it’s a mature system without as much scope for improvement. High temperatures reactors will be more efficient, just a matter of bringing the costs down. It can also burn waste from the majority of reactors. How much waste are produced by all the hundred odds reactors in your country? China is also in the top ten in gas reserves, but like US, they are mostly shale gas, locked in the rocks. It’s not really clean nor green. Fracking is a dirty business and burning produce CO2 in vast quantities. It’s cheaper for China to buy gas from Russia, Iran (piped via Pakistan) and the Stans States, all having more natural gas than US and consuming far less.

  17. And while you are here and discussing economically viable PWRs, how will a Chinese sodium cooled reactor compete economically with Chinese CAP-1400 nuclear reactors?

    Because. It. Cant.

  18. We can’t build an economically viable PWR in the USA because methane is so cheap that it makes everything else an economic loser if there aren’t massive subsidies.

    Electricity is so cheap in the USA that electric cars are economically viable options as opposed to say Europe where Electricity has the same range of costs as methane reformed Hydrogen.

  19. Correct the goals are to make heat safely and then as cheaply as possible. Your reactor idea is interesting but you would have fission daughter product from the inner core to the molten metal outer wall, eventually to the metal wall itself.

  20. Fast reactors are much too complicated and problematic. People who design nuclear reactors must get a fundamental understanding of the real problem that is to be solved. The real problem is not to build a functional reactor. The real problem is to boil water at the safest and cheapest cost possible.

    Whatever you build must be simple, must be cheap and must last for decades with the least amount of maintenance.

    So I was thinking how could you build a reactor that would last forever. It would required a vessel that was very resistant to corrosion and radiation damage. Then a thought occurred to me what if you surround the core of the reactor with a liquid metal shield. Imagine a reactor that was just a core of molten salt embedded in molten lead. Hydraulic flow and difference in density would keep the molten salt centered in the vat. Molten lead would flow from the top thru the molten salt to remove heat. It would then be pumped thru heat exchangers to generate steam.

  21. Research on them was basically shut down in the West in the nineties – by Clinton in the US, by Jospin in France. The German one wasn’t even allowed to start up. Too many infant greenies traumatised by seeing sodium burn in chemistry class. Shame they never did a gas explosion.

  22. I was wondering what the line:

    The development itself is a 5.

    Meant when I read it in the article. It really doesn’t make sense unless you include 473’s question and definition of the scale.

  23. Thermal neutrons are “slow”, and have energies down in the tens of eV. Fast neutrons are usually considered to be over 1 MeV.

    Even at thermal energies, the neutron capture cross section for U-238 (which leads to making Pu-239) is substantial, but IIRC the cross section peaks at something approaching the energies found in a fast reactor (i.e., one that uses fast neutrons).

  24. And what’s the phrase “thermal neutron” used for? I forget. Is a thermal neutron more like a “fast neutron” which causes fission, or is it more like a “slow neutron” which gets captured by a nucleus? Or are thermal neutrons purely seen in terms of their temperature effects?

  25. China is going to phase out coal with nuclear and does not want to rule out any options. Meanwhile, United States cannot even build an economically viable PWR.

  26. If you hit Uranium 238 with a fast neutron it briefly becomes Plutonium 239 before splitting.

    You’re conflating two different things here, with maximum cross sections at different energies. One is fast fission, where the U-238 becomes U-239 (not Pu-239) and then fissions into two fission products and a a few neutrons. The other is a neutron capture, where the U-239 undergoes double beta decay to become first Np-239, then Pu-239.

    There is no case where U-238 turns into Pu-239 directly and fissions.

  27. Trying things doesn’t mean trying good things. China is trying most every kind of reactor and fuel imaginable. Maybe they should have crunched some numbers and put more of an emphasis on economically viable reactor designs.

  28. PWRs have taken half a century to get to their current levels – over ninety percent capacity factor, 50 GWD/t. When they started they were well below that – and uranium enrichment used about fifty times more energy than now. Sodium fast reactors are already better for burnup, will eventually need no enrichment, and should be able to go to higher thermal efficiency, much smaller containment, and easier manufacture ( since they run at low pressure.) Other hand, Macron’s government in France has cancelled their fast reactor ( they seem to have a lot of ex-Greens involved ), Russia has slowed down development of BN1200, and India seems to be taking forever to start their 500 MW version. Nice to see somebody actually trying things.

  29. I’d rate it as a 2. Reason being twofold: Technically there is nothing new here that has not been done in USA or Russia, and there is really no way that this competes economically with PWR reactors that China produces.

    Improved fuel efficiency is quaint and the safety is so-so compared to a modern PWR (hello sodium). None of these are the criteria that determines success of a new reactor design, the only thing that truly matters once safety is satisfied is COST and this won’t be cheaper than current PWRs.

  30. Basically a Gen4 reactor is the opposite of a Chernobyl reactor that runs away and kills everything. You can shut it down and it’s walk-away safe. It also consumes 70% of the fuel, which is much higher than Gen2 or 3. This means less waste.

    Still not as good as a molten salt reactor, but it’s something.

    I’d rate this as a 3. Maybe have them pop one bottle of champagne.

  31. The development itself is a 5. It is just steady progress to technology that would be double and potential three times as efficient with nuclear fuel. Going from 20 miles per gallon to 40 miles per gallon and eventually 60 mpg and maybe more. If China makes the transition that they are talking about then around 2040 they can use these reactors to close the fuel cycle. ie no nuclear waste or unburned fuel. the plan would involve regular reactors, fast reactors and offsite reprocessing (recycling of fuel) facilities. The impact is there if China follows through makes hundreds of reactors based on this technology. They could leverage this to phase out coal power significantly starting around 2040.

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