Category Archives: Fast Breeder Reactor Programs: History and Status
Local politics with respect to nuclear facilities is complex and influential. Government financial incentives, called kofu-kin, reward communities for accepting nuclear-related facilities and play a large role in local politics. Once a local community accepts a nuclear facility, it receives annual payments (in billions of yen) from the Government. Kofu-kin and tax revenues from nuclear facilities become a major component of local budgets. Therefore, despite strong resentment about the cover-up after the Monju accident, the local community has a significant incentive for restarting the plant.
Another factor driving fast breeder reactor and fuel cycle policies is the difficulty of finding off-site spent fuel storage sites. Because on-site storage pools are reaching their capacity, reprocessing is seen by many as the only alternative. The rationale for reprocessing becomes more persuasive if it paves the way towards the commercialization of fast breeder reactors.
We expect the reactor to be producing electricity by the end of 1973. We in the Authority have never proposed that the first commercial fast reactor should not be started until sufficient operating experience of the prototype had been obtained, to be absolutely sure that there were no fundamental problems unresolved. I have, however, always believed in continuity of design and experience and would like to see the next reactor started as soon as the lessons of the first have been fully assimilated by the designers and engineers. Clearly our hopes of a 1974 start are now too optimistic in the light of the commissioning and operating dates for the prototype and the amount of component testing now judged necessary. The design of the CFR is, however, under way…
CFR was the latest acronym, standing for Commercial Fast Reactor.
The February 1973 issue of Atom, the AEA monthly, reported on a meeting the previous November, attended by senior civil servants and nuclear industry management, on "Future Prospects for Energy Supply and Demand," presented by the "New Systems Forum" of the AEA. According to the report of the meeting:
A commercial fast breeder power station programme commencing with a lead station coming on line in 1981 and further stations in the mid — 1980s appears to be a reasonable assumption on the basis that PFR knowhow and experience will be adequate for a first order to be placed for around 1976.
The almost imperceptible note of caution—1976, not 1974, and the "mid-1980s" for subsequent stations—had to be set against the assumption that a station ordered in 1976 could be "on-line in 1981." This allowed only five years for construction and commissioning, compared to the eight plus years already run up at the Dungeness B Advanced Gas-cooled Reactor station and at contemporary fossil fueled stations likewise still unfinished.
Even the faint note of caution in this report was swept aside in an aggressive presentation delivered in the United States in mid-1973 by Tom Marsham, deputy managing director of the AEA’s Reactor Group:
Satisfactory experience with the experimental reactor DFR in the early 1960s led to construction of the 250 MWe power station at Dounreay which will be brought to power this year. Some two or three years from then, we are expecting to start constructing the 1300 MWe lead commercial station with ordering of subsequent commercial plants building up to large scale during the early 1980s. There is nothing adventurous or foolhardy about this plan.
Nothing, perhaps, except its central premise. The end of 1973 arrived and departed with the PFR still awaiting its first criticality, to say nothing of being brought to power. One primary and one secondary sodium pump malfunctioned during tests. Both had to be removed from the reactor for detailed examination. Tests continued with the remaining two primary pumps. On 11-14 March 1974, however, the British Nuclear Energy Society was to play host to a major international conference on "Fast Reactor Power Stations," with delegates from France, the United States, the rest of Europe, Third World countries and even the Soviet Union. The ignominy of welcoming the foreign visitors to the conference with the PFR still cold was too much to contemplate. The week before the conference the AEA pulled out the control rods at Dounreay, and on 3 March 1974 started up their new reactor for the first time. On the opening day of the conference they announced the fact with pride; it was far from coincidental that their French colleagues announced, on the closing day of the conference, that the French Phenix fast breeder had just attained full power.
One paper in particular, by Eric Carpenter, head of reactor physics at the CEGB’s Berkeley Nuclear Laboratories, warned that the CEGB was less enthusiastic than the AEA about a rapid move into fast breeders. Reliability was crucial; together with delays in construction, lack of reliability had "a much bigger deleterious influence on electricity costs than almost any of the advantages claimed in the brochure assessments." The CEGB by this time had all too much firsthand experience of both delays and unreliability of its conventional nuclear stations, and of what the paper scornfully called "brochure assessments." The paper asserted that the putative savings from introducing fast breeders as fast as possible would be no more than 5 percent of total expenditure on a nuclear system and then only in what it called "the unlikely event of capital costs of fast and thermal reactors being equal." The CEGB contributors considered that no order for a fast breeder power station could be placed before 1977 or 1978 at the very earliest.
Throughout much of 1974, staff at Dounreay continued running the PFR at low power. Small leaks appeared in the steam generators, the boilers in which hot molten-sodium passed through thousands of fine tubes to boil the water around the tubes. Such leaks were a particular problem in a sodium-cooled system because of sodium’s reactivity with water. A major leak, like one that had happened at the Soviet fast breeder prototype at Shevchenko in November 1973, would release enough hydrogen and heat to create a serious hazard of explosion. Even a minute leak, invisible to the naked eye, would lead to the formation of hydrogen bubbles in the sodium coolant, presenting at the very least an unwelcome irregularity in the coolant flow, and possibly actual control problems. By the end of October 1974, the most troublesome steam generator was decoupled from the reactor in order to find the leaking tube and plug it.
Six months later, the PFR once again played host to a visiting party. At the end of April the newly formed European Nuclear Society (ENS) held its inaugural conference in Paris. After the conference, one of the side trips took participants from all over Europe to Dounreay. AEA staff were happy to show off their reactor, which was, they said, working fine; a month earlier the plant had generated its first electricity. Unfortunately, however, it had yet to reach a power level above 12 percent of its full thermal capacity. Small but persistent leaks in the sodium water steam generators kept two of the reactor’s three cooling circuits out of operation. PFR staff carried on operating the reactor on its one remaining cooling circuit, but trouble with turbine bearings interrupted even this limited operation. Then, just before the nuclear dignitaries arrived from Paris, more small leaks manifested themselves, this time in a section of the only operative cooling circuit.
The AEA staff at Dounreay put on brave faces, but the ENS visit cannot have been an especially happy occasion. As the editor of Nuclear Engineering International, put it: "Although the reactor itself has been operating very well it has not yet been possible to build up any significant amount of fuel irradiation." Nor, it might be added, to generate any significant amount of electricity. The AEA continued to protest that the reactor itself was working well, and that the stubborn troubles at Dounreay were with the generating set and the steam generators. But the CEGB had already suffered many years of frustration with its own generating sets, and knew what a headache these could be.
Furthermore, to suggest, as the AEA was trying to, that the steam generators were somehow ancillary, not part of the nuclear system, was indefensible special pleading. One of the unique distinguishing characteristics of the fast breeder design selected by the AEA was precisely the choice of molten-sodium as a coolant. If you could not then use the molten-sodium reliably to boil water, you had a basic design problem — one that could not be brushed aside by reference to the satisfactory operation of the reactor core itself.
It was thought by the AEC that scaling up components from existing fast reactors (EBR-II was 62.5 MWt and Fermi 1 was 200 MWt) to the size of the proposed CRBR demonstration plant (975 MWt), was too risky technologically to take in one step. Therefore, an intermediate-size reactor, with a mission to test fuels, was inserted into the U. S. LMFBR development program. In July 1967, the U. S. Congress authorized construction of the Fast Flux Test Facility (FFTF), which at that time was estimated to cost $87.5 million and scheduled to begin full-power operation in early 1974.46 The 400 MWt FFTF was a loop-type sodium-cooled, MOX-fueled fast reactor with no blanket for breeding additional plutonium. See figure 7.4.
Figure 7.4 Fast Flux Test Facility at Hanford, Washington.
Source: Federation of American Scientists.
Construction of the FFTF was completed in 1978 at the U. S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Hanford, Washington site, and criticality was achieved in 1980. It started serving as a test facility in 1982. When the CRBR was cancelled the following year, the FFTF lost its primary mission but continued to operate until April 1992 to test various aspects of fast reactor design and operation, including experiments designed to verify the ability to passively remove radioactive decay heat from a reactor core via convection of liquid-sodium coolant. By 1993, the usefulness of the reactor was diminishing, so the decision was taken in December of that year to deactivate it. Over the next several years, efforts to find a new mission for FFTF, including producing radioactive isotopes for medical use or tritium for weapons, failed. With its fuel and sodium coolant removed, FFTF continues to be maintained in a cold standby condition, while proponents continue to seek new justifications for its use.
JAEC is the primary government entity authorized to review and make decisions on Japan’s nuclear R&D programs. While JAEC may advise R&D institutions to revise their goals and schedules, it typically endorses their R&D plans.
In 2001, the Council for Science and Technology Policy (CSTP) was established by the Basic Law on Science and Technology within the reformed Prime Minister’s Office and is chaired by the Prime Minister. Its primary function is to review R&D plans submitted by government agencies. It grades major R&D programs from S (most important) to A, B, C (least important). It is intended to strengthen the Prime Minister’s ability to override agency R&D budgets driven by vested interests. The Monju project received a grade of "S" and the Feasibility Study on Commercialization of Fast Reactor Cycle Systems11 (FaCT) program received an "A" and therefore it is unlikely that CSTP will override development plans for the Monju project or the FaCT program.
Although the Nuclear Power National Plan set a goal for completion of a demonstration fast breeder reactor by 2025 and commercialization by 2050, there are obstacles that may compromise these goals.
One obstacle is plutonium stockpile management. Japan has more than 46 tons (8.7 tons in Japan, approximately 37 tons in Europe) of separated plutonium in stock, but its MOX recycling program has made little progress. When the Rokkasho reprocessing plant (800 tons heavy metal/year capacity) begins full operation, the stockpile is likely to increase. Since reducing the plutonium stockpile should be a top priority for Japan, breeding is not likely to be an important policy goal for Japan’s nuclear power program.
A second obstacle relates to spent fuel management and its impacts on fuel — cycle technology. Japan has been reviewing various reprocessing and MOX fuel fabrication methods, including pyro-processing technology developed in the United States for reprocessing fast reactor metallic fuel. Historically, spent fuel management, and not plutonium demand, has driven Japan’s reprocessing requirements. If this focus is maintained, it is likely that Japan will build a second plant, using wet technology, to reprocess uranium oxide spent fuel. So far, Japan’s R&D on reprocessing technologies has focused on the classic PUREX process.
If Japan pursues its MOX-recycling plans, spent MOX fuel will accumulate and Japan may want to reprocess this fuel. The technological choice for the second reprocessing plant is a complex policy issue.
A third obstacle is the matter of cost and risk sharing among stakeholders. Overall, it is not clear how much fast breeder reactor fuel cycle programs will cost and who will bear those costs. The Nuclear Power National plan proposes a cost sharing arrangement for a demonstration fast breeder reactor, but future cost sharing arrangements are uncertain. Meanwhile, one of the goals set by the Ministry of Economy, Technology and Industry’s next generation light-water reactor program is to extend the life-times of the reactors to 60-80 years. If this goal is achieved, the need for the fast breeder reactors may not materialize even after 2050.
Japan remains officially committed to the fast breeder reactor and closed fuel cycle systems. However, the fast breeder reactor commercialization date has receded far into the future while the fast breeder reactor R&D budget has been shrinking. Japan’s continued commitment to the fast breeder reactor appears largely driven by socio-political factors affecting Japan’s management of the back-end of the light-water reactor fuel cycle and R&D management. The Nuclear Power National Plan restated Japan’s interests in fast breeder reactor and advanced fuel cycle programs due in part to international developments, especially the GNEP initiative, which has since lost support in the Obama Administration and in the U. S. Congress.
Hope that the Dounreay Prototype Fast Reactor (PFR) would be brought up to full power in February will not now be fulfilled. The designed output of 250 MWe is not now likely to be achieved ‘for several months’.
The reactor continues to operate satisfactorily and with number 1 secondary (cooling) circuit in operation an electrical output of 40 MWe has been achieved with a thermal power of approximately 200 MW (of heat) … Work in preparation for recommissioning of number 3 secondary circuit is well advanced. The circuit has been filled with sodium and cleanup operations are in progress… It was expected that this circuit would be available for power operation during the next few weeks. On number 2 circuit, work on checking the superheater and to determine how best to operate has progressed well.
By September 1976 some of the news from Dounreay, as noted in Nuclear Engineering International, was at last genuinely good:
During most of August the 250 MWe PFR at Dounreay has been operating on all three of its coolant loops with all of the early heat exchanger problems now remedied. The maximum power reached so far is 500 MWt, but full power was expected to be reached by the first week in September.
The report continued, however, with additional news of a slightly more disconcerting kind:
Plans to replace all three types of heat exchanger with improved designs using austenitic steel and avoiding the thick tube plates where corrosion has occurred are still proceeding as scheduled for installation in 1979.
When this schedule for replacing major plant components with completely new ones had been decided, the magazine did not say. It was nevertheless a further indication that the PFR was a long way from demonstrating that fast breeders could fulfil the CEGB’s requirements that they be reliable, built on schedule and within budget. The AEA said that the replacement heat exchangers would be in service by 1979. They were not. Over the years, periodic questions in Parliament elicited monotonously similar answers: the cumulative capacity factor (output of electricity from the PFR as a fraction of its design capacity) remained stuck year after year at approximately 10 percent. In October 1984, the authoritative quarterly analysis published in Nuclear Engineering International gave the total lifetime capacity factor of the PFR in the first ten years after its startup as 9.9 percent.
On 23 March 1977 Lord Hinton, who had chosen the Dounreay site and supervised the early stages of construction of the DFR, threw the switch that consigned it to history. His reflective remarks on the occasion, reprinted in the AEA monthly Atom, were a tour de force of personal reminiscence interspersed with incisive views on the current state of the art, including the PFR:
I hope and believe that many lessons have been learned from PFR. At one of the early Fast Reactor Design Committee meetings Jim Kendal, whose feet were usually very firmly on the ground, put forward a complicated proposal for the design of the fast reactor and I remember saying to him, ‘Look Jim, that’s a very clever idea but I don’t pay you to be clever, I pay you to be successful’. Most of the mistakes (and fortunately they have been rectifiable) on PFR have been made because engineers have thought they were just that little bit more clever than any of us really are.
Hinton went on to endorse the proposal to build a full scale fast breeder "not later than the end of this year… the aim should be to commission it before 1985." Unfortunately, however, Hinton’s assumption about the ready rectification of the mistakes on the PFR was premature.
Another Dounreay mistake was to dump an assortment of discarded material, much of it uncatalogued and unrecorded, into a disused access shaft leading into a waste-disposal tunnel under the seabed offshore. On 10 May 1977 an explosion in the shaft blew its five-tonne concrete cap off and scattered debris in all directions. Investigations suggested that waste contaminated with sodium-potassium coolant had produced hydrogen in the shaft. The explosion happened less than a month before the opening of the intensely controversial public inquiry into the proposed
Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant (THORP) at what was then called Windscale. A key reason for THORP was to recover plutonium for the U. K.’s long-anticipated fast breeder power stations. Perhaps not surprisingly, almost no word about the Dounreay shaft explosion reached the media at the time.
The U. K. commitment to reprocessing was based on the assumed rapid commercialization of fast reactors. From the mid-1960s official U. K. opinion, led by the AEA, assumed that a rapid progression from the little DFR to the larger PFR to a series of full scale fast breeder power stations was not only natural but obviously desirable. The only possible constraint foreseen was a conceivable shortage of plutonium to fuel the full scale fast breeders. With that in mind, the reiterated policy of Government and AEA was to reserve all "civil" plutonium separated from U. K. spent fuel, against its imminent use to fuel the coming fast breeder power stations. Even in 1975, when the PFR had at long last gone critical only to manifest the sodium leaks that would cripple it, the official commitment remained unshaken.
A measure of this commitment could be seen from the AEA’s evidence to the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, chaired by Sir Brian Flowers. In September 1975, the AEA submitted a paper to the Flowers Commission taking as its premise a nuclear programme that would have a total of 104 GWe of nuclear power in operation by the year 2000, of which no less than 33 GWe would be fast breeders. At the time the total operative nuclear generating capacity in Britain was less than 5 GWe, the nuclear plant construction industry was in chaos and the PFR had yet to attain more than a modest fraction of its intended design output. Sir Brian Flowers, himself a part time board member of the AEA, was reported to have taken exception to this scenario as being utterly unreal. The AEA insisted that it was not a forecast, merely a "reference programme" to establish an upper limit on the scale of British nuclear involvement for purposes of weighing environmental impact. Be that as it might, the AEA clearly considered this "reference programme" as achievable.
Since the beginning of the 1970s, the AEA had been pleading for government permission to build its long-awaited Commercial Fast Reactor. Design teams from the AEA, the CEGB and the nuclear plant manufacturers had been busying themselves for years laying out their paper power plant, based on a 1.2 GWe fast breeder. By 1976, the AEA was spending close to £100 million a year in funding on research and development on the fast breeder. In 1976, confident rumour had it that the go-ahead for the CFR was at last imminent.
The rumour had received a boost from the suggestion that the Flowers Commission would be advocating the CFR. At the end of 1975, however, Sir Brian Flowers declared that this suggestion was "quite false." Flowers published letters he had exchanged with Prime Minister James Callaghan, asking that the Government hold off any decision "on whether to proceed with such a plant in collaboration with other European countries" until after the Commission published its report some months later. Failing such a postponement, the Commission wanted to see a clear distinction drawn between a single full scale demonstration fast breeder and a large continuing programme of such plants. The Commission conceded that, by building one full scale plant Britain might contribute significantly to resolving what the Commission called "the serious fundamental difficulties" associated with the fast breeder. No official body had for many years so much as hinted that the fast breeder could even raise "serious fundamental difficulties." Flowers indicated indirectly in his letter what these difficulties might be:
The demonstration site should be remotely sited; it should have its own fuel reprocessing and fabrication plant on site in order to remove the security risks of shipment of plutonium; it should be provided with every means of protection, including both physical devices and an armed security force; and experience of plutonium accountability and inspection should be designed into its system.
Although the highest priority was given to LMFBRs, several other types of breeders were considered, and reached various stages of development in the United States. In addition to the LMFBR, these included the gas (helium) cooled fast breeder, and two thermal-neutron reactor types, the light-water breeder reactor and the molten-salt breeder reactor (MSBR). The fast-neutron breeder reactors were designed to breed plutonium from uranium-238, while the thermal-neutron breeder designs were optimized to breed uranium-233 from thorium-232.
Perhaps the most interesting alternate concept explored in this early work was the molten-salt breeder, which still has advocates.47 In this reactor, the fuel and coolant are combined in a molten mixture of fluoride salts. The salt flows through the reactor core, through an intermediate heat exchanger, and then back to the reactor core. Molten-salt reactors were first proposed by Ed Bettis and Ray Briant of Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) during the post-World War II attempt to design a nuclear-powered aircraft.48 Two molten-salt reactors were built at ORNL. The first was a prototype aircraft reactor, the 1.5 MWt Aircraft Reactor Experiment (ARE), which operated for 100 hours in October 1954. The second, the graphite-moderated 8 MWt Molten Salt Reactor Experiment (MSRE), operated between June 1965 and December 1969, demonstrating the technical feasibility of the molten-salt breeder concept.
In 1972, ORNL proposed a major development program that would have culminated in the construction and operation of a demonstration reactor called the Molten Salt Breeder Experiment. The total program cost was estimated at $350 million over a period of 11 years.49 Those who would have had to approve the funding of the program were already heavily committed to the LMFBR, however. The ORNL proposal was rejected by the AEC partly because it wished to reduce the number of breeder candidates to be developed and because the breeding ratios projected for the molten-salt reactor were low compared to those foreseen for the fast-neutron reactors.50 In January 1973, ORNL was directed to terminate MSBR development work. The program was reinstated a year later, and in 1974 ORNL submitted a more elaborate proposal calling for approximately $720 million to be spent over an 11-year period. This proposal was also rejected, and, in 1976, ORNL was again ordered to shut down the MSBR program "for budgetary reasons."51
The Shippingport Atomic Power Station was converted in 1975 into a marginal breeder using a thorium-uranium-233 fuel cycle.52 The Shippingport plant had begun commercial operations on May 26, 1958 and was the first nuclear power station in the United States to generate commercial electricity. It also was a major milestone in the development of light-water power reactors because it pioneered the use of uranium-oxide fuel in a water-cooled reactor.53
The gas-cooled, fast breeder reactor (GCFBR) was promoted by General Atomics, which had developed and was marketing the high temperature gas-cooled reactor (HTGR) in the United States.54 The first HTGR demonstration plant was built at the Fort St. Vrain, Colorado Nuclear Generating Station. Fort St. Vrain was connected to the grid on December 11, 1976, and was shut down on August 29, 1989 due to continuing problems.55 The GCFR would have had the same helium coolant technology, and its fuel would have had much in common with that of the HTGR. However, it would have lacked the graphite moderator of the HTGR and the safety advantage of its large thermal heat capacity.
The Soviet Union’s fast-neutron reactor program began at the end of 1949 when physicist Alexander Leypunsky presented a special report to the Government on the idea of creating nuclear reactors that could produce more fissile material than they consumed. The rationale offered was that in the future, as the Soviet nuclear industry expanded rapidly, there would be a shortage of uranium. In November 1949, the Government decided to launch a fast-reactor development program. Leypunsky was designated as the program’s scientific leader and the State Scientific Centre of Russian Federation, Institute of Physics and Power Engineering (IPPE) in Obninsk became the lead research institute.1
The program contended with inadequate knowledge in many areas, including the behavior of the candidate reactor, core and coolant materials under irradiation and the information required to design the steam generators, where the reactor coolant and water would be separated only by a thin layer of material.2
It is important to note that the program started only four years after the most destructive war the country had ever faced. There were shortages of both special materials and personnel with relevant expertise.3
The first decade of the Soviet breeder program was exploratory. In May 1955, a fast critical assembly BR-1 (in Russian "Bystry Reactor-1," i. e. Fast Reactor-1) started operation at IPPE. It was fueled with metallic plutonium and without a coolant.4 The compact plutonium core and uranium blanket allowed a breeding coefficient of approximately 1.8, which lent great support to the breeding idea.
The following year, the fast reactor, BR-2 began operation. Both gaseous and liquid-metal coolants were considered during the design stage.5 Mercury was chosen but the metal plutonium fuel was not stable under irradiation even at low temperatures and mercury leaked from pipe joints and corroded the steel cladding.6
The BR-2 was replaced with the BR-5 (5 MWt),7 and commenced operations in 1959. It was cooled with liquid sodium and fueled with plutonium dioxide to allow higher fuel temperatures and power densities (up to 500 kilowatts/liter) in the core.8 The BR-5’s power was subsequently increased to 10 megawatt thermal (MWt) and it operated until 2004. In addition to reactor research and development, the BR-5 was used for medical-isotope production and even medical treatment (neutron-capture therapy of throat cancer using neutron beams from the reactor).
On 22 June 1976, at Energy Secretary Tony Benn’s National Energy Conference, Flowers was more specific about the Commission’s unease about the use of plutonium as a civil fuel. Earlier in June, Benn had told the Commons that the Government would announce in the early autumn its decision about the future of Britain’s fast breeder programme. Work had reached a point at which the Government had to decide:
our approach to the next stage of the system’s development, including our policy on the construction of a fullscale demonstration reactor.
This is a matter of great public importance in terms of long term energy provision and the safety and environmental considerations. In my current review of this I wish to provide the opportunity for wide consultation. I shall take full account of the prospects for international cooperation and the forthcoming report on radiological safety from the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution.
As it turned out, however, the Royal Commission was concerned about more than just radiological safety. The Commission was deeply apprehensive about the implications of a commitment to what it called the "plutonium economy." This term was coined by Glen Seaborg, a co-discoverer of plutonium, chairman of the U. S. Atomic Energy Commission during most of the 1960s, and an enthusiastic booster of plutonium-breeder reactors. The Royal Commission accepted that there was a case to be made for building a single large fast breeder to assess its safety and social implications. But the Commission went on to warn that "we must view this highly significant first step with misgivings… The strategy that we should prefer to see adopted, purely on environmental grounds, is to delay the development of CFR1" (paragraphs 517-18). After the publication of the Flowers report, on 22 September 1976, the prospect for even a single large fast breeder in Britain became distinctly bleaker.
In September 1977 the Select Committee on Science and Technology published the report of its study into so called "alternative sources of energy." AEA chairman Sir John Hill welcomed the committee’s recommendation that CFR be built. The following month, at a Royal Institution conference cosponsored by nuclear proponents and opponents, Sir Brian Flowers, speaking in the role of a critic in the session on fast breeders, concurred with his co-speaker, the AEA’s Tom Marsham, that one large fast breeder was indeed to be recommended. Nevertheless, despite this apparent closing of ranks within the U. K. nuclear establishment, the Government was less and less eager to give CFR the green light.
Added to this was the view expressed by Sir John Hill, that the AEA did not regard the proposed large fast breeder as in any way an experimental plant. On the contrary, it would just be another nuclear power station, of a new design. Behind this confident assertion lay a crucial corollary: if the new plant was just another power station, it would obviously be paid for not by the AEA but by the electricity suppliers, just as they paid for all their other power stations. However understandably appealing this idea was to the AEA, it did nevertheless come up against a basic problem. The CEGB did not want a fast breeder power station — not, at any rate, if it had to pay for it.
Furthermore, the AEA had by this time undermined its own position, by relabeling its proposed plant. It would be not a Commercial Fast Reactor but a CDFR (Commercial Demonstration Fast Reactor). The internal contradiction in this new label did not go unremarked: surely a plant was either commercial or a demonstration plant? The new designation amounted to an admission by the AEA that the plant would not be in any conventional sense "commercial." It would "demonstrate" the design for a commercial plant; but its electricity output would not be competitive in cost with that from conventional generating plants.
The CEGB let it be known that it would make a site available for a large fast breeder linked to the CEGB system; but it had no intention of putting up the capital for such a plant. The collapse of electricity demand growth was already embarrassing. The CEGB’s excess generating capacity was headache enough as it was, without adding more: especially with the probable aggravation of a novel design. The AEA might get away with pronouncing itself pleased because the PFR’s reactor itself was working properly, despite the deep seated troubles with the steam generators. The CEGB could not take such consolation.
The OPEC oil shock in 1974 had triggered an economic recession throughout the industrialized world. Soaring fuel prices stunned energy users into a new and thriftier awareness of their previous extravagance. Electricity consumption stopped increasing. In some countries like Britain it even decreased. Interest rates in double figures made nuclear power, with its huge capital costs, even less competitive with conventional fuels. The grandiose global vision of an energy future centered on plutonium fueled fast breeders began to look less and less plausible.
From 1978 onwards, official support for introducing the pressurized water reactor (PWR) to succeed the United Kingdom’s gas-cooled graphite-moderated reactors was also tacitly sidelining the fast breeder. Nevertheless the election of the Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher in 1979 noticeably revitalized official support for fast breeders; one of Mrs. Thatcher’s first official visits was to Dounreay, on 6 September 1979. In 1981-82 the focus of nuclear controversy was the battle over the pressurized water reactor at Sizewell B. The fast breeder people kept their heads down.
The AEC prepared three remarkably optimistic cost-benefit analyses of the LMFBR program. The first was written in 1968 and released in 1969;56 the second was an updated (1970) analysis released in 1972,57 and the third, a 1973 analysis, was first released as part of the AEC’s 1974 Draft Environmental Impact Statement on the LMFBR Program.58
These analyses were extremely sensitive to changes in several important input variables, including the capital costs of LMFBRs relative to conventional nuclear reactors, electricity demand growth rates, uranium availability and the discount rate, which affects the relative weight given to near-term investments and longterm benefits. By making favorable but unrealistic assumptions, the AEC generated favorable benefit-to-cost ratios in each of these studies.
These assumptions included completely unrealistic nuclear power growth projections.59 For example, figure 7.5 shows the 1974 AEC projections of nuclear power in which a total U. S. nuclear capacity of approximately 2000 gigawatt electric (GWe) was projected for 2008. 2000 GWe would have supplied approximately four times the U. S. actual total consumption of electricity in 2008. In reality, total U. S. nuclear capacity in 2008 was approximately 100 GWe and supplied approximately 20 percent of U. S. electrical power.
The rise and fall of Clinch River Demonstration Breeder Reactor
In 1969, statutory authorization was obtained to proceed with the first LMFBR demonstration plant,60 financed in large part by the Federal Government.61 The CRBR was to be a joint project of several electric utilities and the AEC (subsequently DOE).62 The arrangements for financing, constructing, and managing the CRBR were spelled out in a 1972 Memorandum of Understanding and a subsequent series of detailed contracts among the AEC, Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), Commonwealth Edison Co. (now Exelon), Project Management Corporation and
Figure 7.5 AEC’s 1974 estimate for the growth of nuclear power in the U. S.
LWR represents light-water reactors. The AEC believed that U. S. uranium resources could sustain less than 1000 GWe of light-water reactors. Source: U. S. Atomic Energy Commission, Proposed Environmental Statement on the Liquid Metal Fast Breeder Reactor WASH-1535 (1974).
the Breeder Reactor Corporation. Westinghouse Electric Corporation was selected as the reactor manufacturer. Construction of the CRBR was projected to begin in 1974 or 1975 (and power generation in 1981 or 1982).
The plant was to be located at a bend in the Clinch River on the AEC site at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and to be operated by the TVA. It was to provide electricity to the TVA grid. The CRBR was to be a bridge between the FFTF and an eventual full-size prototype commercial breeder. Its design thermal power output was 975 MWt, approximately 2.5 times that of the FFTF, with an electrical generating capacity of 350 MWe. The reactor was a loop-type sodium-cooled, MOX-fueled plutonium breeder.
Starting in 1972, however, the LMFBR Program, and the CRBR project in particular began generating fierce public and political opposition due to economic, nonproliferation and safety concerns. On March 24, 1977, President Jimmy Carter, building on an October 28, 1976 decision by President Ford,63 directed the indefinite deferral of commercial reprocessing and plutonium recycle in the United States. In the same directive, President Carter suspended the licensing process geared toward obtaining a Limited Work Authorization for the CRBR.64
The decisions by Presidents Ford and Carter were primarily in response to India’s use of plutonium separated with U. S. assistance in an "Atoms for Peace" program to make a nuclear explosion in 1974. At the time, Brazil, Pakistan and South Korea had all contracted to buy reprocessing plants from France and Germany. The U. S. Government suspected that all three countries were interested in separating plutonium for weapons purpose.
Along with this concern about proliferation, the urgency of the breeder reactor began to fade. President Carter was advised that the AEC’s projections of U. S. nuclear power growth and hence its claims that the United States would soon run out of low-cost uranium were greatly exaggerated.65
Cost increases also played a significant part in broadening opposition to the project. In September 1972, during hearings before the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, the AEC presented a cost estimate of $699 million for the CRBR demonstration plant. The Federal Government would provide $422 million through the AEC and the utilities would provide the balance. The project was scheduled to achieve initial operation in 1979.66 In the following year, the utilities committed themselves to pay $257 million plus interest, with a total utility commitment by September 1983 of $340 million. By the time detailed reference designs were completed in 1974, however, the estimated cost of the project had risen to $1.7 billion. By September 1983, approximately $1.7 billion had been spent and the estimated cost of the project had gone over $4 billion. According to the contract between the DOE and the utilities, virtually all of the additional funds would have had to be provided by the Government.67
A related issue was the high cost of building breeder reactors to produce electricity. Until late 1975, the AEC had been assuming that the capital costs of breeder reactors would decline to the same level as light-water reactors within 15 years. In 1977, this estimate was revised upward to a permanently higher cost of 25-75 percent. This meant that the cost of uranium would have to increase to $450-1350 per kg for the uranium savings to offset the additional capital charges of the breeder reactor.68 Figure 1.2 in the Overview, chapter 1, shows the history of uranium prices since 1970.
In a study done for the conservative Heritage Foundation in 1982, Henry Sokolski, referring to contract studies done for the U. S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, noted that, given the assumed capital cost disparities, the breakeven price for uranium would be nearly 18 times the then current price of uranium.69 Such cost studies led many conservative groups to oppose the CRBR. The economics of breeder reactors appear as dim today as they did in 1983.70
Despite the Carter Administration’s opposition, Congress continued to fund the CRBR. Although site construction could not proceed, the project continued to order and warehouse major components. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan restarted the process for licensing CRBR construction. By the end of 1982, the design was mostly complete and most components either were on hand or had been ordered.71 But on October 23, 1983, Congress eliminated FY-1984 funding for the CRBR and, on December 15, 1983, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission terminated the licensing process and vacated the Limited Work Authorization it had granted the previous year. With this action, breeder reactor development in the United States essentially ended.
Since the cancellation of the CRBR in 1983, ANL and the Nuclear Energy program office in the DOE have continued to seek ways to revive fast-neutron reactor development in the United States, first by promoting the Integral Fast Reactor concept,72 then through the Generation IV International Forum, and most recently the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP).
During the second and third decades of the program, experience was acquired in the use of fast-reactor technology.
In 1961, the critical assembly BFS-1 started operation at IPPE. It allowed researchers to simulate fast-reactor core volumes of up to 3 m3 with cores fueled by different mixtures of plutonium and uranium of varying enrichments, and different configurations of control and safety rods. It also allowed studies of the effects of sodium voids on reactivity and other physical effects. BFS-2, which started operating at IPPE at the end of the 1960s, could simulate cores with volumes up to 10 m3.
A higher power special fuel-testing reactor, the BOR-60, was designed and constructed in the Institute of Atomic Reactors (Dimitrovgrad) in five years and began operating in 1969. Vibro-packed fuel was tested in this reactor. It is still operational.
Between 1962-1964, the future direction of Soviet nuclear energy development was studied. A main concern was conservation of uranium resources. The study concluded that a "promising perspective is expansion of nuclear energy using fast breeder reactors starting with enriched uranium fuel and step-by-step replacement with plutonium fuel."
A demonstration project was initiated even before the BR-5 began operating. Initially the demonstration reactor was named BN-50 (50 MWt) but later the power was increased to 1000 MWt. The reactor came to be called BN-350 for its equivalent electrical output.9 The design of the demonstration BN-350 and a significant number of experiments at the BFS-1 critical assembly were completed before construction started in 1964.10 The Minister of Atomic Energy, Yefim P. Slavsky, decided to build the reactor on the Mangyshlak peninsula on the Caspian Sea. The heat was used for desalination as well as electricity generation. It was fueled with uranium enriched up to 20-25 percent uranium-235 and with mixed — oxide uranium-plutonium (MOX) test fuel assemblies. It began operations in 1972.
A year later, in late 1973, the BN-350 experienced a major sodium fire due to the failure of one of the steam generators. The BN-350 steam generators were designed and built without sufficient experimental study. Additionally, welding quality control on the first set of steam generators was inadequate. The reactor was shut down for repair for approximately four months and then continued operations until it was shut down permanently in April 1999.
Even before the BN-350 began operating, the Government decided to start a second fast-neutron reactor with a still higher power as a step toward fast-neutron reactor commercialization. The project was called BN-600 (600 megawatt electric). Experience acquired during the initial period of BN-350 operation was used to make changes to the BN-600 design.
The reactor was designed with a secondary sodium circuit between the radioactive primary sodium and the steam generator. It is a pool-type design with the heat exchangers between the primary and secondary sodium loops within the reactor vessel. There is no containment structure. The reactor was the third unit of the Beloyarskaya nuclear power plant in the Ural region and is still operating.
As of 1997, there were 27 sodium leaks in the BN-600, 14 of which resulted in sodium fires. The largest leak was 1000 liters.11 The fires were extinguished without casualties, however, and plant personnel repaired the damage. The steam generators are separated in modules so they can be repaired without shutting down the reactor.
No irresolvable problems were encountered during construction of the BN-350 and BN-600 reactors. The pumps, vessel, piping, cover of the reactor with its movable port for locating the refueling machine over a specific fuel assembly, and steam generators were produced at Soviet manufacturing plants, and all mechanical equipment was tested prior to final installation. Standard turbines were used.12
During 1970-80, IPPE launched the designs of two new fast-neutron reactors, the BN-800 (figure 5.1) and BN-1600. The BN-800 (800 MWe), which is again under construction (as of 2009), will be a modernized version of the BN-600 to match a standard turbine.13 The BN-1600 will be a commercial nuclear power plant. In the early 1980s the Government planned to build five BN-800s in the Ural region. After the Chernobyl accident in 1986, however, the Soviet nuclear energy program was cut back (table 5.1).Russia’s economy was not able to support substantial investments in new nuclear power plants during the 1990s. In addition, fast-neutron reactors were not economically competitive with Russia’s light-water and graphite-moderated thermal-neutron reactors and estimates of available high-grade uranium increased sharply as a result of the discovery of large uranium deposits in Kazakhstan in the 1960s and 1970s.
Planned nuclear capacity additions (GWe)
Realized nuclear capacity additions (GWe)
Table 5.1 Planned and realized nuclear capacity additions in the Soviet Union. Gigawatt electric (GWe).
Core fragments trap
Figure 5.1 Artist’s Rendition of the BN-800 reactor now under construction (2009).
Source: Institute of Physics and Power Engineering.
In 2000, however, in a speech at the U. N. Millennium General Conference, President Putin unveiled a new program for expansion of Russia’s nuclear capacity. This expansion program, while focused primarily on light-water reactors, includes fast-neutron reactors. The first step towards commercialization will be the construction of a few replicas of the BN-800 and completion of the design of a commercial prototype of the BN-1600.14
The fast-neutron reactor program has several goals:
1. Develop a closed uranium-plutonium fuel cycle;
2. Produce chain-reacting uranium-233 from neutron capture in thorium blankets as a potential fuel for thermal-neutron reactors;
3. Fission the minor transuranics, neptunium, americium and curium; and,
4. Significantly reduce highly radioactive waste volume for a final geological repository.
It is difficult to estimate the cumulative investment in the fast-neutron reactor program. One estimate offered in 2004, by F. M. Mitenkov of the Afrikantov Experimental Machine Building Design Bureau, is approximately $12 billion, which included construction of the BN-600 and design of the BN-800.15