News in Depth: Nuclear, the Next Generation

In our continuing effort to explore what’s next for nuclear, we turn this week to the recent announcement that China will begin construction on a 600 MWe fourth generation fast neutron reactor. While details of the project are few, there is speculation that this project may be the first successful partnership between China and TerraPower, the Washington state based energy firm founded and chaired by Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Bill Gates.

In this week’s News in Depth, we will take a look at the technology behind fourth generation fast neutron reactors, the story of TerraPower, and China’s efforts to be at the forefront of nuclear energy development and deployment.

Next Generation Technology

As the World Nuclear Association (WNA) notes, fourth generation fast neutron reactors (FNRs) have been in development for decades. As of 2010, over 400 reactor-years of operation have been logged with approximately 20 reactors in different periods. The WNA also provides a useful summary of the initial motivation behind FNR tech:

The FNR was originally conceived to burn uranium more efficiently and thus extend the world’s uranium resources – it could do this by a factor of about 60. From the outset, nuclear scientists understood that today’s reactors fuelled essentially with U-235 exploited less than one percent of the energy potentially available from uranium. Early perceptions that those uranium resources were scarce caused several countries to embark upon extensive FBR [Fast Breeder Reactor] development programs.

The technology is incredibly complex, but for reference note that

Natural uranium contains about 0.7% U-235 and 99.3% U-238. In any reactor some of the U-238 component is turned into several isotopes of plutonium during its operation. Two of these, Pu-239 and Pu-241, then undergo fission in the same way as U-235 to produce heat. In a FNR this process is optimized so that it ‘breeds’ fuel. Some U-238 is burned directly with neutron energies above 1 MeV.

TerraPower‘s Travelling Wave Reactor (TWR) leverages the knowledge gained from decades of FNR research to produce what they describe as “Generation IV, liquid sodium-cooled fast reactor.”


Image Source: TerraPower

China’s New Project

According to the WNA, China first began research FNR reactors in 1964 and, in 2003, built “a 65 MWt fast neutron reactor – the Chinese Experimental Fast Reactor (CEFR) – … near Beijing [in partnership with] Russia’s OKBM Afrikantov [and] OKB Gidropress, NIKIET and Kurchatov Institute.”

This new project is part of China’s efforts to have, according to CIAE projections, fast reactor capacity progressively increasing from 2020 to at least 200 GWe by 2050, and 1400 GWe by 2100. As noted in the opening, TerraPower’s involvement in the project is still unconfirmed, but industry and media sources seem to be coalescing around such a partnership as Gates himself recently travelled in February of this year to China to meet with “with Nur Bekri, a vice chair of China’s National Development and Reform Commission, and with China National Nuclear Corp chairman Sun Qin.”

In any event, what we are seeing here are the early stages of what looks like a new phase in nuclear technology. 4th Generation reactors – in this case, sodium FNRs – have been in development for over a decade and now we are seeing an example of one of the these new designs taking shape. Development is slow, yes, but it is happening and happening at in increasing pace in China. We can only now wait to see what comes next and, hopefully, to see confirmation that this project marks the first partnership between China and Gate’s TerraPower.


Russia’s BN-800 fast breeder reactor goes critical

Russia has completed construction of its latest fast breeder reactor or FBR and has begun controlled nuclear fission.  The reactor will slowly ramp up power until it reaches its maximum output of 880 megawatts in early 2015.  It is expected to operate for 45 years producing an incredible 475 million kilowatt hours of electricity in its lifetime.

FBRs are a technological step beyond conventional nuclear reactors.  They have the advantage of being able to “burn” a wider variety of fissile materials than other nuclear reactors including the fissile waste from other reactors.  The name “breeder” comes from their ability to produce more plutonium than they consume.  The ability to consume waste and produce plutonium has many nations, including Russia, India, China, France, and others, as well as the IAEA, envisioning a closed fuel cycle where conventional reactors produce fuel for breeder reactors which produce fuel for conventional reactors.  Russia sees the BN-800 reactor as a  step towards achieving this goal.

The next stage is construction of the BN-1200, which is scheduled to be assembled in the same plant as the BN-800 by the year 2020.  In total, Russia hopes to construct 8 BN-1200 reactors by the year 2030.  While there are other fast breeder reactors operating around the globe, Russia is the only nation to successfully deploy the technology on an industrial scale.


RT: Fast reactor starts clean nuclear energy era in Russia

World Nuclear Association: Fast Neutron Reactors

IAEA: Assessment of nuclear energy systems based on a closed nuclear fuel cycle with fast reactors