Return of the Breeder

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<ul><li><p>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.</p><p>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.</p><p>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.</p><p>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</p><p>level of operational reliability and safety.But others looking at the same data</p><p>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.</p><p>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</p><p>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.</p><p>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].</p><p>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-</p><p>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.</p><p>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</p><p>34 SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN January 1996</p><p>TECHNOLOGY AND BUSINESS</p><p>Return of the BreederEngineers are trying to teach an old reactor new tricks</p><p>FUEL-HANDLING and coolant-pump machineryare visible in the dome over the Superphnix reac-tor vessel. The reactor is near Lyons, France. </p><p>ERIC</p><p> BO</p><p>UVET</p><p> Gam</p><p>ma </p><p>Liai</p><p>son</p><p>Copyright 1995 Scientific American, Inc.</p></li></ul>