China Close to Firing Up a Fast Reactor

Russian nuclear energy holding company Rosatom reported yesterday that a subsidiary had completed construction of an experimental nuclear reactor in Beijing. At 25 megawatts the reactor’s power output is small, but it sends a big message about where nuclear technology may be heading — especially after the Obama Administration’s effective cancellation last month of plans to store U.S. spent nuclear fuel at an underground repository below Nevada’s Yucca Mountain.

The Chinese Experimental Fast Reactor is so-named because the neutrons produced in its core are not ‘moderated’ with water like those that generate heat in nearly all commercial nuclear reactors. The faster neutrons can burn down nuclear waste and even generate new fuel, promising a solution to the thorny problem of waste storage as well as energy independence.

Fast reactors have proven difficult to operate because most rely on highly flammable liquid sodium to cool the reactor, but their promised benefits keep the hope alive. As Rosatom puts it in their press release: “Just like in Russia, China’s nuclear strategy is based on the use of fast reactors as this type of reactor ensures the most efficiency[sic] use of nuclear fuel. CEFR is a project of national significance.”

China’s experimental reactor is to be loaded with fuel this summer. If all goes well the plan is to follow up with a larger scale ‘prototype’ before proceeding to commercial scale plants in about 2035. They may not be alone. Japan is pushing forward with plans to restart a 280-MW fast reactor at Monju that was idled by a sodium fire within months of startup in 1995 and has not run since. India and Russia, meanwhile, are both building large fast reactors.

And in the U.S.? The Bush Administration pointed the U.S. nuclear R&D towards recycling of spent fuel in fast reactors, and that approach is back in the spot light now that Obama has frozen development of Yucca Mountain. A blue ribbon panel may be struck to set a new course for U.S. spent fuel. But some politicians are already calling for recycling the waste, according to the Salt Lake Tribune.

The U.S. will need an interim solution if it opts for recycling in fast reactors. Fast reactors will not be ready for commercial operation at least two decades, according to a report issued by the OECD’s Paris-based Nuclear Energy Agency last month. Japan, which is basing its future energy policy around fast reactors, does not anticipate that they will begin to displace conventional pressurized water reactors until after 2050.

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This post was created for the Technology Review Potential Energy blog

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