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Fast Reactors are Alive and Kicking

Rosatom's fourth unit at its Beloyarsk nuclear power plant is a BN-800 fast breeder reactor that was connected to the grid in December 2015

Rosatom’s BN-800 Fast Breeder Reactor was connected to the grid in Dec., 2015.

Fast breeder reactors have already been successfully developed in Russia and they will become successful outside of Russia too if policymakers and investors decide to make them a priority, writes Ian Hore-Lacy, Senior Research Analyst at the World Nuclear Association.

Anti-nuclear campaigner Jim Green declared in Energy Post recently that fast reactors are dying a slow death. He used a lot of information from the World Nuclear Association to support his argument. It is good to see that he does not take issue with anything we have published in our information papers. However, he is selective. For example, he makes too much of countries backpedalling on the technology due to the effect of abundant low-cost uranium likely to last to mid century, even with substantially increased demand from conventional reactors. He also points to the sort of technical and other failures that can be expected with any innovative technology.

So, let me set out the main elements of the fast neutron reactor (FNR) picture as I see it, which is much more positive than Green’s vision.

When the first fast reactors were built and operated in the 1960s-70s, a shortage of uranium was feared, and this drove policy to utilize that uranium much more fully. We now know that uranium is abundant, and can be recovered economically from low-grade ores.  Today the development of FNRs is justified rather by the desire to burn long-lived actinides from used light water (conventional) reactor fuel.

Then there was a big setback. When President Carter put the brakes on FNR development in the USA in 1977 by banning reprocessing, that pulled the carpet from under what was arguably the world’s leading FNR program. Some FNR research has continued there, but with little government funding.

India, however, with an abundance of thorium but little uranium, and cut off from world nuclear trade, embarked upon a unique program to utilize that thorium, with FNRs as a middle step. In fact its small experimental fast reactor (FBTR) has been operating since 1985. Admittedly its 500 MWe prototype fast breeder reactor (PFBR) at Kalpakkam under construction by BHAVINI since 2004 has proceeded slowly. Maybe we will see it start up next year.

Forged ahead

Though several countries have stated vague objectives about a likely high number of fast reactors by mid-century, Russia is really the only country that has forged ahead with them.  Its BN-600 at Beloyarsk has operated well, supplying electricity to the grid since 1980, and is said to have the best operating and production record of all Russia’s nuclear power units.

Its successor is the BN-800, also at Beloyarsk. This is a new more powerful FNR, which is actually the same overall size and configuration as BN-600.  There are some significant improvements from BN-600 however. The first BN-800 (and probably only Russian one) is Beloyarsk-4, which started up in mid 2014 and recently went into commercial operation.  Whereas several BN-800s were once envisaged, this BN-800 at Beloyarsk has become essentially a test rig for fuel, and its main purpose has become providing operating experience and technological solutions, especially regarding fuel, that will be applied to the BN-1200.

The BN-1200 fast reactor is being developed as a next step towards Generation IV types (see box), and the design was expected to be complete this year. Rosatom’s Science and Technology Council has approved the BN-1200 reactor for construction at Beloyarsk, with plant operation from about 2025. A second one is to be built at South Urals by 2030. Others are envisaged following. It is significantly different from preceding BN models, and Rosatom plans to submit the BN-1200 to the Generation IV International Forum (GIF) as a Generation IV design.

Generation IV

The Generation IV International Forum (GIF), inaugurated in 2001, is a major international programme, which, on the basis of collaboration among 13 countries and the EU, is developing six nuclear reactor technologies for future deployment. Four of these are fast reactors. All operate at higher temperatures than most of today’s plants, and four are designated for hydrogen production as well as power. More information here.

Small reactor

This is the only firm program of large commercial fast reactors at this stage. However, Russia is also active with smaller and more innovative FNR designs. It has experimented with several lead-cooled reactor designs, and used lead-bismuth cooling for 40 years in reactors for its seven Alfa class submarines – not very successfully but accumulating 70 reactor-years of experience.

A significant new Russian design getting away from sodium cooling is the BREST fast neutron reactor, of 300 MWe or more with lead as the primary coolant, at 540°C, and supercritical steam generators. A pilot unit is planned at Seversk, and 1200 MWe units are proposed.  Interestingly, it is a lead-cooled fast reactor design that Westinghouse has flagged a real interest in.

Getting into the small modular reactor scene is Russia’s lead-bismuth fast reactor (SVBR) of about 100 MWe.  This is an integral design, which can use a wide variety of fuels.  The unit would be factory-made and shipped as a 4.5m diameter, 7.5m high module, then installed in a tank of water which gives passive heat removal and shielding.  A power station with 16 such modules is expected to supply electricity at low cost as well as achieving inherent safety and high proliferation resistance.  A new cooperation agreement with China may advance plans for this, since in contrast with other nuclear R&D there, China’s own FNR program seems stalled.

And in the research reactor scene, Russia plans to replace the veteran BOR-60 fast reactor after the end of 2020 with a 100-150 MWt multi-purpose fast neutron research reactor (MBIR), with four times the irradiation capacity and a number of interesting features.


In addition to the Russian programme, there are many other fast reactor designs around the world being investigated by governments and private enterprise, and time will tell which will succeed. Most are relatively small.

One worth mentioning is Astrid, a French project with Japanese input. Astrid is envisaged as a 600 MWe prototype of a commercial series of 1500 MWe sodium-cooled fast reactors which are likely to be deployed from about 2050 to utilise the half million tonnes of depleted uranium that France will have by then. Astrid will have high fuel burn-up, including minor actinides in the fuel elements, and its mixed oxide (MOX) fuel will be broadly similar to that in Europe’s current reactors.

Another is GE-Hitachi’s PRISM, based on a smaller US fast reactor which ran for 30 years to 1994.  It is 311 MWe, a convenient size for replacing fossil fuel units, and its metallic fuel is derived from used fuel from conventional reactors. In October 2016 GEH signed an agreement with a subsidiary of Southern Nuclear Operating Company, to collaborate on licensing fast reactors including PRISM in the USA.

Fast reactors are certainly at an earlier stage of development than the 430 commercial power reactors of conventional design. But despite the failures and setbacks inevitable in any technology step up, there are enough highly positive developments to be confident of success if they become a major priority outside of Russia. Certainly those involved with them do not share Jim Green’s dismissive views!

Content Discussion

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on December 23, 2016

Ian, though Jimmy Carter banned commercial reprocessing in 1977, it didn’t “put the brakes” on FNR development in the US.

From 1984 until 1994, funding continued on development of Argonne National Laboratory’s Integral Fast Reactor (IFR) until it was killed by Bill Clinton and John Kerry. Argonne Nuclear Engineering’s Director of Outreach, Roger Blomquist, believes the IFR was “ready for prime time” when the program was shut down.

As configured, Argonne’s IFR would be capable for operating for close to a millenium burning the spent fuel stored in dry casks at a contemporary nuclear facility alone. Given the priorities of our new administration, any new nuclear will likely need to be purchased from offshore vendors, like our TVs, our lawn chairs, and pretty much everything else.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on December 23, 2016

A common trait of some of the fast reactor types is an operating temperature range that is compatible with solar salt as the secondary heat transfer fluid. While solar salt is more corrosive than liquid sodium, it is much more benign when leakage occurs, since (unlike sodium) it’s non-flammable and doesn’t react violently with water.

Obviously, solar salt can also be used in the role that it serves for CSP systems: thermal energy storage. Don’t expect this to happen in cloudy places like Russia or northern Europe, but in much of the US and India, it would work well in a grid rich in solar PV: the reactor runs at constant power, and the thermal storage is used to time-shift the electricity output to the evening and night-time, avoiding the daytime low prices.

Unlike battery storage, a thermal storage system can have a fossil (or hydrogen) fueled backup steam generator, for very little extra cost (backup is important when solar is used in regions with winter demand peaks).

Helmut Frik's picture
Helmut Frik on December 24, 2016

I do not see this reactor producing electricity at low enough prices to be of any value in the time past 2050. LCOE is also worth a consideration.

Darius Bentvels's picture
Darius Bentvels on December 24, 2016

The facts show how disastrous fast reactors are. Not only financial, but also their many times faster accident expansion capabilities towards disastrous explosions, as well as the extreme high amount of radio-activity they then can spread. Damaging genes & health in the whole world:

Japanese rather new Monju fast reactor leaked due to a small thermocouple failure (measured the sodium temperature). It took ~20yrs to repair the damage caused by the following high temperature fire. In the end Japan decided to stop with it.

UK had disastrous experiences with fast reactors in Scottish Dounreay.
The area may never become clean again. It contributes to Scottish aversion against nuclear and explains its fast move towards 100% renewable electricity (to be reached in ~1920).

Russia operates its third generation fast reactor (BN800). As:
– they don’t communicate much about its operation, neither that of their predecessors (BN350 started in 1964, BN600); and
– the BN800 is only slightly larger than its predecessor; and
– they decided to construct only one successor for their BN600;
it’s safe to assume that their costs are very high & productivity low.

French third generation Super-Phénix (after Rapsodie and Phénix), had a capacity of 1.2GW. It produced 8.2TWh during 11yrs of operation; a capacity factor of 7%. Closed in 1997.
As they didn’t find a good nuclear waste storage (yet?) for the long term radio-active waste that their many NPP’s produce, they have a need to find another solution. So they are developing a new fast reactor in the hope that reactor can reduce the period of high radio-activity of their stockpile of nuclear waste to a thousand years or so.

Each of the countries above probably suffered losses in the range of $100billion.

Germany constructed a similar fast reactor at Kalkar. When it was ready, the concerned state concluded that:
– it would also explode much faster than a PWR/LWR;
– the amount of radio-activity it would spread would be many times more than Chernobyl affecting the whole world seriously.
So, while ready, it was never allowed to start. It’s now an amusement park.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on December 24, 2016

In terms of technology portfolio management, fast reactors today are treated as advanced technology: demonstration fast reactors are built to show technological mastery, while light water reactors (LWRs) are the bread-and-butter products that produce most of the world’s non-fossil/non-hydro energy.

Thus for greens, stopping the deployment of fast reactors appears to be embraced as a show of political mastery, even though the vast majority of environmental benefit produced by these groups results from occasionally impeding use of coal. Their mis-directed efforts to make us worry about trivial leaks/burning of non-radioactive sodium in Monju or fear the never-completed IFR faster breeder only harms the planet (i.e. it doesn’t take 20 years to repair damage, 90% of that time was spent negotiating with stakeholders).

Fast reactors are more advanced and more difficult than LWRs in the same way that fuel injection is more advanced than carburetors: both can be made to work fine. The first ever electrical power from a nuclear reactors was in 1951, at the EBR-1 fast reactor in Idaho. Subsequent testing on the follow-on EBR-II showed that fast reactors can be designed to safely handle credible accident scenarios.

The future of fast reactors will be determined by countries with active nuclear programs (e.g. China, India, etc). The Europeans will continue their thrust towards a very uneconomical combination of coal-backed renewables until it becomes un-affordable.

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on December 24, 2016

Thermal neutron reactors could also use high temperature working fluids.

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on December 24, 2016

Fine article, especially in contrast to Green’s.

Darius Bentvels's picture
Darius Bentvels on December 24, 2016

Fast reactors are already more than half a century treated as advanced technology, with demonstration reactors being built.
Which then show to become extremely expensive failures.

An worrying issue as it shows that the technology is not mastered, so a Fukushima / Chernobyl like explosion is well possible. As the radio-active content of a fast reactor is many times that of Chernobyl / Fukushima the whole world will suffer from such disaster.

Helmut Frik's picture
Helmut Frik on December 25, 2016

What use is a reactor which has a LCOE maybe 5 times or thigher than market prices which produces fuel for power stations which are sitll by factor two and more above market prices for CO2-free power? that does not make any sense, even when ignoring all dangers comming from these designs.

Darius Bentvels's picture
Darius Bentvels on December 26, 2016

Especially since this whole nuclear cycle emit 2-10 times more CO2 per KWh than wind+PVsolar+storage.

Princeton has an interesting publication about the French fast reactor developments (originally published in Science and Global Security, 17:36–53, 2009).

It’s remarkable that the French plan next fast reactor, Astrid, get a capacity of only 600MW. Only half that of their last fast reactor, Super-Phenix, which had a capacity of 1200MW.

douglas card's picture
douglas card on December 29, 2016

That’s not kicking – its a death twitch. Fission is already dead due to the fact that solar plus storage will be cheaper by the time any of these mentioned could possibly be in operation.

Paul O's picture
Paul O on December 29, 2016

Do you have ANY idea what kind of storage, what quantity of materiel, what amounts of acreage would be needed for a Solar+Storage solution…seriously? Did you consider that Solar Power is just not a feasible solution in some places?

Frankly a wise policy maker would be certain to develop Nuclear Fission just so as to not be boxed into a corner with access to only one type of carbon free power supply like you seem to be advocating.

Grace Adams's picture
Grace Adams on December 29, 2016

I would like to see those spent fuel rods sitting around in dry casks fully consumed in producing electric power over a few hundred to one thousand years, rather tan having to sit around through several changes of dry casks waiting out roughly three thousand years for radioactivity of the spent fuel rods to get down to that of the ore used to make the fuel rods.
Maybe some combination of hydro, wind, and even maybe geothermal and maybe even some solar can be used where solar alone isn’t good enough.

douglas card's picture
douglas card on December 29, 2016

You apparently have NO idea how silly it is to mention acreage in relation to renewables. 1% of available land will power the world. IF a wise policy includes Fission, why are there ZERO new facilities planned in the USA? Don’t you think we are the smartest? lol You are way past clueless. Maybe you could read something and stop wasting your time displaying your lack of knowledge about the subject.
IF renewables are NOT the future, why are they doubling every couple years? There will be ZERO gov subsidies needed in a couple years.
And how many new coal facilities are planned in the USA? lol

Darius Bentvels's picture
Darius Bentvels on December 29, 2016

Energy density*) of renewable solution is at least 20 times higher than that of nuclear**)!

The renewable solution being a combination of wind+solar + storage being batteries and Power-to-Gas and storage in earth cavities for years…
*) Energy density as produced number of KWh/a per m².
**) Consider also the uranium mine, the uranium enrichment plant, the fuel rod fabrication plant, the space the nuclear waste takes during 50-50,000yrs, the long construction and decommission period of nuclear plants.

Even Indian Point, with 15MWh/a per m² USA most power dense nuclear plant, is inferior compared to wind+solar+storage!

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on December 29, 2016

Fission, why are there ZERO new facilities planned in the USA?

The US has four reactors under construction at this time, two in Georgia, two in South Carolina. On Dec 19th, the US NRC issued license (COL) to Duke Energy to build a two reactor plant in South Carolina. A dozen small modular reactors are planned for Utah, online in 2023.

And how many new coal facilities are planned in the USA?

Four, in California, Kansas, N. Dakota, and Texas. One is under construction at Kemper, Mississippi (CCS)

Dozens of US natural gas plants are under construction and planned, totaling 18.7 GW 2016-2018. The states with the largest gas additions are Texas, Florida, Virginia, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on December 29, 2016

Fission, why are there ZERO new facilities planned in the USA?

The US has four reactors under construction at this time, two in Georgia, two in South Carolina. On Dec 19th, the US NRC issued a license (COL) to Duke Energy to build another two reactor plant in South Carolina. A dozen small modular reactors are planned for Utah, online in 2023.

And how many new coal facilities are planned in the USA?

Four, in California, Kansas, N. Dakota, and Texas. One is under construction at Kemper, Mississippi (CCS)

Dozens of US natural gas plants are under construction and planned, totaling 18.7 GW 2016-2018. The states with the largest gas additions are Texas, Florida, Virginia, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

Paul O's picture
Paul O on December 29, 2016

Acreage of Batteries, my friend. Acreage of Batteries.

Just how many batteries would be needed to provide power for New York City? What about L.A, Chicago, Houston.

Just how do you plan to use Solar for these cities?

A nation would be stupid to rely on renewables for the future. Why would a civilization rely on the weather when the problem by definition of Climate Change would dictate something not dependent upon a change in climate? A wise civilization would need to store enough solar power for multiple days worth to be realistic.

How many acres of battery storage would keep the US supplied in the face of population growth and future industrial needs? Think about it.

Darius Bentvels's picture
Darius Bentvels on December 30, 2016

Wise civilizations also implement Power-to-Gas which allows for cheap storage during years in earth cavities!
As the Germans already do with Russian natural gas.

Paul O's picture
Paul O on December 30, 2016

Interesting, but I have the same issues with power-to-gas (methane?) as I have with biomas. If we have Carbon already trapped, or if we are capable of trapping carbon, WHY is releasing it back into the atmosphere the best thing to do?

I will concede that power to ammonia is a viable enough concept

Darius Bentvels's picture
Darius Bentvels on December 30, 2016

PtG is mostly hydrogen, produced from electricity and water. No carbon used or released or trapped.
Carbon is irrelevant in this.

Read the pages behind the link in my previous comment.

Don’t know a car that runs on ammonia and do know several car models that run on hydrogen.