Peter Fairley

A View from Peter Fairley

China Close to Firing Up Its Fast Nuclear Reactor

The technology could help the United States deal with the issue of nuclear-waste storage.

  • April 7, 2009

Russian nuclear-energy 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 of plans to store spent U.S. 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 some nuclear waste and generate more fissile material, helping to deal with the thorny problem of waste storage as well as energy independence.

Fast reactors have proved difficult to operate because most rely on highly flammable liquid sodium for cooling. But their promised benefits keep the hope alive. As Rosatom puts it in its 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.

China may not be alone. Japan is pushing forward with plans to restart a 280-megawatt fast reactor at Monju that was idled by a sodium fire within months of start up in 1995, and has not run since. India and Russia, meanwhile, are both building large fast reactors.

And in the United States? The Bush administration pointed the U.S. nuclear R & D toward recycling spent fuel in fast reactors, and that approach is back in the spotlight 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 United States will need an interim solution if it opts for recycling in fast reactors. They will not be ready for commercial operation for 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 it will begin to displace conventional pressurized water reactors until after 2050.

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