Russia the only country that actually does have a fast breeder nuclear reactor in operation

RUSSIAN NUCLEAR INDUSTRY OVERVIEW, Earth Life Johannesburg Vladimir Slivyak Russian environmental group, Ecodefense National Research University Higher School of Economics Moscow December 2014

“………..Fast breeders

The nuclear industry started to promote the so-called closed nuclear fuel cycle with fast breeder
reactors some 50 years ago. The idea was to develop a technological cycle that would involve
reprocessing spent nuclear fuel, extracting plutonium from it, and then “breeding” this nuclear
material in commercial reactors in order to provide the nuclear power industry with a virtually
inexhaustible source of fuel while also eliminating the problem of managing the highly toxic
nuclear waste. No country in the world, however, has since been able to introduce a closed fuel
cycle successfully. All breeders that were brought online in Western countries that attempted to
close the nuclear cycle stopped their commercial operation long before their designed lifetime
periods expired, for economic, safety, and technical reasons. As of 2014, Russia remains the only
country with a fast breeder reactor in commercial operation, a BN-600 operating at Beloyarsk
Nuclear Power Plant.
The Beloyarsk station is near Russia’s third largest city of Yekaterinburg, in the Ural region,
some 2,000 km east of Moscow. Thirty various accidents occurred at the BN-600 during its 30
years of operation, some convolving radioactive releases. A larger-capacity breeder reactor, of
the BN-800 design, may enter commercial operation as early as 2015 at the same plant. Russia is
further planning to export this technology, in particular to China.
In the 1980s, the Russian nuclear industry planned to build another breeder reactor, at the SouthUral
nuclear plant in the region of Chelyabinsk, but in a referendum held in 1990, local citizens
voted against the construction. In 2008, the Russian government again included the South-Ural
NPP into its nuclear power development program. In August 2011, however, it was announced
that plans for this nuclear plant were postponed indefinitely.
Fast breeders are designed to breed plutonium – i.e. produce more plutonium than they
consume – while generating electricity. Russian proponents of the use of plutonium for electricity
generation continue to argue that reactor-grade plutonium cannot be used in nuclear weapons
because of ”pre-initial ignition”, and that the plutonium programs should not be considered
contrary to nuclear non-proliferation goals. But this is nothing more than adspeak refuted by
facts recognized in the international scientific community. The 1994 U.S. National Academy of
Sciences report on disposal of nuclear weapons materials, for instance, states that “plutonium of
virtually any isotopic composition can be used in nuclear weapons”.18
In Russia, plutonium fuel is not yet used on an industrial scale, but Rosatom is developing
plans to introduce mixed uranium-plutonium oxide (MOX) fuel at certain nuclear power plants.
In particular, new power units of the VVER-1200 type are capable of using MOX instead of
conventional uranium fuel. In addition, the newly built fast breeder of the BN-800 design at
Beloyarsk will likely use MOX fuel as well.
Plutonium is one of the most dangerous radioactive substances for human beings. When released
into the biosphere, it interacts with natural biochemical cycles. The radiation hazard of plutonium
is due to its alpha activity, the specific value of which is approximately 200,000 times greater
than that of another alpha emitter, uranium-238. Plutonium has a half-life of 24,000 years. Once
inside the human body, plutonium remains there forever, destroying the surrounding tissue
with strong ionizing radiation. Even an insignificant amount of plutonium can cause severe,
even fatal, damage to the body. Alpha particles have low penetration depth: they are stopped
by clothes and the skin. However, plutonium can enter the body via the respiratory or digestive
tracts.
All nuclear power plants, even in the course of regular, accident-free operation, emit radioactive
waste in gaseous, liquid or solid form. Introducing MOX fuel into the nuclear power cycle will
inevitably lead to radioactive releases containing additional particles of plutonium, which may
spread into the environment. And should an accident occur at a MOX-fueled nuclear power
plant, the risk of plutonium contamination will be greater compared to an accident at a reactor
running on uranium fuel.
Beloyarsk NPP started to use MOX fuel in 1988, but to a very limited extent. Over the next twelve
years, until 2000, 34 fuel assemblies with mixed fuel were altogether loaded into the BN-600
(annual consumption of uranium assemblies is 246).
Sodium is used in the BN-600 as a coolant in the primary and secondary circuits, and the third
circuit is water/steam with intermediate (sodium) overheating of steam. Sodium burns when in
contact with the air or other oxidizing environments. Burning sodium produces smoke that can
cause damage to equipment. The problem becomes more complicated if the smoke is radioactive.
When in contact with concrete, hot sodium can react with the concrete’s components and evolve
hydrogen, which, in turn, is explosive. Sodium is very likely to react with water and organic
materials as well. This is especially important for the design of a steam generator, as leakage
from the water circuit to a sodium one leads to a rapid increase in pressure. In addition, the
“hollow effect” of positive sodium in the BN reactor core is very likely to occur, which can lead
to a thermal explosion.
Over the 30 years of its operational history, 27 sodium leaks occurred at the BN-600, five of
them in systems with radioactive sodium; fourteen were accompanied by burning of sodium,
and five were caused by improper maintenance or repair operations or by the unit input/output
operations.19russian nuclear industry overview 7
One of the accidents at the BN-600 occurred on January 21, 1987: As a result of the operating
temperature in the reactor core exceeding permissible levels, fuel claddings suffered massive
loss of seal. This led to a radioactive release with a total activity of about 100 thousand Ci. In all
its characteristics, the incident was a Level 4 accident if assessed on the International Nuclear
Event Scale.
In August 1992, an expedition of the State Chernobyl Committee of Russia to the Beloyarsk NPP
area found anomalous concentrations of cesium-137 and cobalt-60. Maximum radiation levels
were registered at about 1200 mcR/h and were attributed mainly to the radiation emitted by
cobalt-60 particles.
On September 9, 2000, personnel errors caused an accident in the Sverdlovenergo power grid,
which supplies the Beloyarsk plant with electricity. As a result, the Beloyarsk station was
disconnected from power supply. Three seconds later the BN-600 reactor was shut down by its
automatic emergency system. The plant’s power output dropped to zero. The station remained
in blackout for nine minutes. Emergency situations of this kind are not described in the operating
instructions. The BNPP was only a few minutes away from a Chernobyl-type disaster.
In 2010, Rosatom secured $200-million in government funding to develop a new breeder design,
the BN-1200.20 Three BN-1200s were planned to be under construction in Russia for completion
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