Return of the Breeder

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  • Once upon a time, when fuel pric-es were high, nuclear fast-breed-er reactors enjoyed brief famebased on a singular claim. While pro-ducing energy by splitting some urani-um atoms, they could create an evenlarger number of plutonium atoms. Thisplutonium could then be turned intofuel to generate much more energy.

    Economics and politics, though, havenot been kind to breeder reactors. Withoil prices at historic lows and formercold war adversaries awash in plutoni-um and uranium, the idea has seemedto lose considerable luster. In February1994 Secretary of Energy Hazel R.OLeary ended U.S. research into breed-er technologyafter some $9 billionhad been spent on it.

    Almost two years later, however, in aclimate as hostile as ever to the technol-ogy, breeder reactors arealmost in-crediblyresurging. In the past year thelargest such reactor ever built, the 1,240- megawatt Superphnix near Lyons,France, was restarted after a long hia-tus following some technical problems.A smaller breeder reactor in Japan gen-erated electricity for the rst time lastAugust. And in recent months, engi-neers in India, which is pursuing twodierent breeder-reactor technologies,were preparing to connect a tinyexperimental breeder reactor nearMadras to the electricity grid.

    These operational milestoneswere supplemented by a study andconference supporting the tech-nology. Last August a panel led byNobel laureate Glenn T. Seaborgissued a report calling on indus-trial countries to develop and usebreeder and other reactors as away of making more fossil fuelsavailable to less developed coun-tries, many of which are strug-gling to electrify. The panel, as-sembled by the American NuclearSociety, also chided the U.S. gov-ernment for halting its breeder re-search. Then, in early October, atechnical meeting, held in Madrasunder the auspices of the Vienna-based International Atomic EnergyAgency, drew experts from Rus-sia, Japan, China, the Republic ofKorea, Brazil and India. Accordingto an attendee, participants con-cluded that breeders have a high

    level of operational reliability and safety.But others looking at the same data

    might call the record mixed. In the U.S.,for example, three breeder reactorswere built, two of which were signi-cant. Argonne National Laboratorys Ex-perimental Breeder Reactor II operatedfor three decades (until 1994) withoutany serious problems. On the otherhand, a commercial, power-generatingplant named Fermi began operating in1963 near Detroit and suered a par-tial core meltdown three years later. Itwas repaired but soon closed becauseof safety concerns. Frances Superph-nix, too, has had problems, mostlylinked to aws in its liquid-sodium cool-ing system. (Such a coolant is necessaryin a fast-breeder reactor because thewater used in conventional reactorswould slow the neutrons liberated byssion, limiting the number that couldcause breedingthe conversion of ura-nium 238 to useful plutonium 239.) Inlate October a steam leak forced a tem-porary shutdown of the plant.

    There are several reasons for the in-terest in expensive, exotic plants tomake fuel, even though there is plentyof it around. For Japan and India, espe-cially, the impetus is national self-su-ciency. These countries have relatively

    few fuel resources and appear to beplanning for a day when fuel is not socheap. In Japan, actually, we dontneed a fast-breeder reactor in this cen-tury, says Toshiyuki Zama, a spokes-man for Tokyo Electric Power Compa-ny, the largest Japanese utility. But wehave to develop technologies for thefuture. More pragmatically, Japaneseocials spent some $6 billion on the280-megawatt breeder reactor, namedMonju after the Buddhist divinity ofwisdom, and are eager to recoup someof this outlay by generating electricity.

    France, which already has largeamounts of plutonium from its exten-sive nuclear power program, plans toconvert Superphnix so that it can de-stroy plutonium rather than produce it.According to engineering manager Pat-rick Prudhon, a reactor core and fuelrods are being designed for this pur-pose as part of a project budgeted at$200 million a year. The new hardware,to be tested after the year 2000, will letthe reactor consume about 150 kilo-grams of plutonium per year, Prudhongures. Unfortunately, Frances powerreactors add about 5,000 kilograms ofplutonium every year to an already siz-able stockpile. Growing accumulationsof plutonium have fueled concerns thatsome of the poisonous, ssile elementcould fall into the wrong hands [seeThe Real Threat of Nuclear Smuggling,by Phil Williams and Paul N. Woessner,page 40].

    Our aim is to demonstrate the capa-bility, to let the politicians of the nextcentury decide whether it is a good op-portunity to use fast reactors to de-

    stroy plutonium, Prudhon com-ments. In fact, in this mode thereactor can destroy not just plu-tonium but virtually all the ac-tinides present in nuclear waste.Actinides are isotopes with atom-ic numbers between 89 and 103.Some are radioactive for thou-sands of years, making them themost troublesome components ofwaste.

    Far from the esoteric, futuristicnotion it has become, this appli-cation was envisioned even beforethe nuclear power industry wasborn. From the 1940s on, it wasalways [Enrico] Fermis idea touse fast-spectrum reactors to con-sume all the actinides, says H.Peter Planchon, associate directorof the engineering division of Ar-gonne National Laboratory. Thisway you would be faced with dis-posing of ssion products withrelatively short half-lives. Thatsstill the view of the French andJapanese. Glenn Zorpette

    34 SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN January 1996


    Return of the BreederEngineers are trying to teach an old reactor new tricks

    FUEL-HANDLING and coolant-pump machineryare visible in the dome over the Superphnix reac-tor vessel. The reactor is near Lyons, France.








    Copyright 1995 Scientific American, Inc.


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