Russian Duma calls for national strategy favoring fast reactors

Russia’s State Duma (parliament) has recommended to the federal government development of breeder reactors with a closed fuel cycle, following hearings on “legal provi­sions for innovation development of the atomic energy branch” this month. The main justification for the recommendation is the possibility to recycle spent nuclear fuel, in particular import­ed spent fuel, as well as accumulated weapons-grade plutoni­um, in fast reactors. Lawmakers pointed out that large amounts of money are spent for storage of separated plutonium in both Russia and the U.S. without an agreernent on what to do with it. Construction of a plant: in Russia to produce mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel from surplus weapons plutonium for use in VVER-1000 and future VVER-1500 reactors is planned under U.S.-Russian arms control agreements, but full funding has not yet been secured. Duma members favor completion of the BN-800 fast reactor as unit 4 of the Beloyarsk nuclear power plant, in the southern Urals. The design is rated at 800 MW, but could be increased to 880 MW. A 600-MW fast reactor, BN-600, has been operating as Beloyarsk-3 for over 25 years. Russian nuclear utility Rosenergoatom plans to extend the unit’s operation for 10 or 15 years. Russia also has experience oper­ating earlier sodium-cooled breeder reactors, including BN­350 in Kazakhstan (now closed), the experimental BR-b at Obninsk, and BOR-60 in Dimitrovgrad. At the hearings, Anatoly Zrodnikov, general director of the Institute of Physics & Power Engineering (IPPE), said Russia is a world leader in construction of breeders with liq­uid metal coolant. Launching of the BN-800 reactor with mixed uranium-plutonium fuel, he said, will allow Russia to keep a lead estimated at 10 to 15 years. Experts say Russian experience in this field is in demand and that support of the technology would allow Russia to take a lead in exporting breeders. They refer in particular to China, which they said wants to construct 100 fast reactors. Another motivation for transition to reactors with a closed fuel cycle is the limitation in domestic uranium reserves, which Zrodnikov said could lead to a supply crisis within seven to 10 years. According to Russian geologists, this year, Russia’s demand for natural uranium will amount to 16,000 metric tons (Ml), but domestic production is only 3,200 MT. By 2020, demand may increase to 20,500 MT against domestic production projected at 5,500 MT. For the time being, about 45% of the country’s uranium demand is covered from stockpiles, which will be exhausted in 10 years, Zrodnikov said. Valery Yazev, chairman of the parliament committee for energy, transportation and communications, was less pes­simistic. Yazev predicted that uranium reserves would be exhausted in 50 or 100 years, along with depletion of oil and gas reserves. But fuel reserves for fast reactors with a closed fuel cycle may last for thousands of years, said Yazev. Academician Yevgeny Velikhov, chairman of the Kurchatov Atomic Energy Institute, linked the urgency of developing fast reactors to recycle of spent nuclear fuel aris­ings, which his institute projects at 40,000 MT in 2050. Yuri Sokolov, deputy director general of the IAEA, argued that developing fast reactors considerably reduces the risks of proliferation of nuclear weapons and nuclear terrorism. Sokolov added that Russia must take steps toward execution of laws permitting deliveries to Russia of spent fuel and pro­vision of fresh fuel in exchange. A framework law permitting spent fuel import was passed in 2002, but implementing reg­ulations have yet to be adopted.

Ten fast reactors by 2020

Lack of funds remains a main obstacle to completion of BN-800. Financing of the facility is not included in the 2005 federal budget despite active lobbying in the Duma. The cost of finishing BN-800 has been estimated at $1.18-billion. Yazev asserted that this is some 10 times less than the cost of a Japanese-made fast reactor. However, Rosenergoatom thinks that the cost of BN-800 may rise due to improve­ments in the design introduced recently. Currently only 10% of the needed funds are available. This year, Rosenergoatom plans to spend at least $21-million on BN­800 and is seeking additional sources of funding. Oleg Saraev, Rosenergoatom’s general director, told the parliament his company wants to build 10 fast reactors by 2020. This project would cost approximately 55-billion and would save about 55.36-billion in uranium extraction and processing of nuclear waste, he said. Saraev—who previously was director of the Beloyarsk sta­tion—urged the parliament to support a national strategy for self-sufficiency in nuclear fuel supply and minimization of natural uranium use as well as nuclear waste production. He said such a project would allow Russia to prepare for con­struction of a commercial series of 800-MW and 1000-Mw fast reactors, with improved safety and economics. Duma members agreed that present legislation does not promote the full development of the nuclear power industry and that the basic atomic energy act needs to be amended. A serious drawback of existing legislation is the lack of a mechanism for guaranteed funding of investments and attracting investments, they said. The Duma therefore adopted a decision on drafting of a law “on State support of innovation development in the nuclear energy sector.” Since private ownership of atomic facilities is prohibited in Russia, the law proposes to give investors the right to own part of the power generated by a nuclear unit. Duma members plan to include this proposal in a specific piece of legislation. The Duma also recommended to the Russian government to draft a “national program for development of fast neu­tron reactors with a closed fuel cycle,” and consider funding it from the state budget. Russia started preparing for BN-800 construction 20 years ago. The unit was planned to be completed in 2010, when the design lifetime of BN-600 is supposed to end. However, so far, only a boiler house has been built because of the lack of fund­ing, and construction of main facilities has not yet begun. Zrodnikov believes that Russia can complete the BN-800 by 2012. Yazev considers the unit can be put into operation between 2012 and 2015. However, Alexander Schmygin, deputy chief of the atom­ic energy department in the Fedcral Atomic Energy Agency (Rosatom), told Russian news services that the first commer­cial standardized BN-800 unit will not be built for 40 years. He noted unresolved problems associated with the reac­tor’s efficiency Shmygin said that “the ambitious plans for annual launching of a new nuclear unit are impracticable because of lack of funds, construction capacities, and work-force.” More concrete, he said, are Rosatom’s plans for launching by 2010 three new VVER-l000s, at Rostov, Balakovo and Kalinin. Yazev noted that besides BN-800, Russian specialists have also been developing BREST-300, an innovative fast breeder design with lead coolant and an on-site fuel cycle, since the late 1990s. But Yazev said the BREST-300 project is “less opti­mistic” because it is surrounded by “a mass of continuing ideological disputes.” Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed support for development of fast reactors back in 2000, and the BREST project was supported by Yevgeny Adamov, head of the for­mer Minatom (Atomic Energy Ministry). Adamov, however, faced serious resistance from many scientists, which hin­dered advancement of the idea, said Yazev. He expressed sur­prise at a recent declaration from the Urals division of the Russian Academy of Sciences in favor of BREST-300. The BREST-300 project can’t be realized before 10 or 15 years, after BN-800, Yazev said. In the meantime, the parliament supported management of the Kurchatov Institute and the Russian Federal Nuclear Center, which called for implementation of high-tempera­ture gas-cooled reactors, underlining their potential for pro­duction of hydrogen.—Alexei Breus, Kiev