Russian President Medvedev has prioritized fast reactor technology in 2009 and assured the projects sufficient federal spending amid Russia's uneasy recovery from the global economic crisis. The government has allocated 110.4 billion rubles ($3.6 billion) for research in this and other nuclear energy areas until 2020 under the New Generation Nuclear Technologies program adopted in February.
The fast breeder reactor achieves what industry insiders call a closed fuel cycle, the ability to use byproducts from one nuclear reaction as fuel for another, allowing for a spectacular expansion of fuel reserves. It usually uses mixed oxide fuel made up of about 20 percent plutonium and 80 percent plain, unenriched uranium that transmutes into more plutonium as it burns.
The uranium's fast neutrons hit a so-called blanket of uranium-filled tubes around the reactor core, and the interaction converts the uranium in the tubes into plutonium, thus breeding more fuel. Also, such reactors use specific kinds of uranium atoms — or isotopes — that exist in abundance in uranium ore, a change that increases the resource base for energy generation.
Typical fission reactors use uranium-235, a fuel that constitutes less than 1 percent of uranium ore, which must be enriched in order to be used in existing reactors.
Traditionally, uranium-238, which constitutes much of the uranium ore, has been unusable, but the fast breeder reactor would allow for its conversion to plutonium, thus making it reusable as a nuclear fuel.
"At some point, you won't want to throw away the uranium … down a hole or into a permanent storage site because it's still useful fuel," said Francis Slakey, a professor of physics at Georgetown University. "And it's the fast reactors that allow you to use the fuel."
Nevertheless, not everyone is convinced of a coming uranium shortage. MIT's Driscoll said the prospect that uranium would remain available at a "reasonable" cost for the rest of the century looked very good, citing a recent study by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Other countries will not be in a hurry to embrace the new technology immediately, he said.
The fast breeder reactor produces waste that is much safer to store because half of its radioactivity dissipates over 30 to 40 years.
France, one of the potential buyers, has already mastered the technology of the closed fuel cycle, according to the Kurchatov Institute. The country has a commitment to build a small reactor unit — in addition to its existing one — come 2020, Kovalchuk and Driscoll said.
India will start putting a series of fast breeder reactors into operation next year, while China is developing the technology at a very rapid pace, Kovalchuk said. Japan and South Korea have a longer way to go, and they move slower, he said.
Fast breeder reactors were initially at least 1 1/2 times as expensive to construct as the conventional equipment. But the costs have been reduced as the design gets simpler, said Baklushin, a researcher at the state-run Alexander Leipunsky Physics and Energy Institute. He estimated their cost at $1,600 per kilowatt of capacity at most.
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