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China: Fast Breeder Programme on Fast Track

The Chinese nuclear juggernaut is now rolling fast. China’s power programme is going to be based on not just the enriched uranium fuelled reactors, of which there are 12 operating, 24 under construction now and 33 more are planned before 2020. China plans to quickly add fast reactors that can either breed or burn plutonium to this list. But, the focus is likely to be more on breeding than on burning. Transmutation of some long-lived radioactive wastes is another possibility.

The first of the fast reactors in China, known as the Chinese Experimental Fast Reactor (CEFR), became operational last week nine years after construction began. Design work commenced 25 years ago. The reactor uses liquid sodium as coolant. Engineering studies on sodium technology were initiated forty years ago with import of a sodium loop from Italy.

CEFR is located in the campus of China Institute of Atomic Energy about 20 km from Beijing. The initial choice was to operate CEFR with about 380 kg of 60% Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) fuel. A later design considered a mixture of oxides of HEU and plutonium, with plutonium amounting to about 150 kg. The uranium part is made up of two different enrichments i.e., 237 kg with 64% enrichment and 43 kg with 19.6% enrichment. Several Russian companies took part in the construction of CEFR. Fuel also is being supplied by Russia.

There are now plans to accelerate the fast reactor programme. The proposal, until about a year ago, was to commission at first a 600 MWe commercial prototype fast reactor (CPFR) of indigenous design in 2020. That was to be followed by a commercial demonstration fast reactor (CDFR) in 2025 eventually leading to full-fledged commercialization of the design in 2030. This step by step approach has now been abandoned. Instead the plan seems to be to start construction of two reactors of Russian design (known as BN 800) each with a generation capacity of 800 MWe right away. China may soon become the world leader with more fast reactors operating in the country, overtaking all the pioneers in the field.

An agreement was signed last October with Atomstroyexport of Russia to commence design work and simultaneously to initiate preproject activities to enable construction of BN800 reactors to start in August 2011 at Sanming in Fujian province. One unit is expected to be ready for operation well before 2019 and the other a year later. The two units together would require an initial loading of about 3.6 tonnes of plutonium oxide mixed with depleted uranium oxide (MOX fuel).

China’s focus till now appears to have been on production of plutonium for weapons. China’s stock of military plutonium is estimated by some to be about 4 tonnes. China claims it had no civilian plutonium stock as of Dec 31, 2007. That is what China has said in its response to IAEA’s INFCIRC/549 that expects member countries to report on management of civilian plutonium stocks. China is now building a plant for spent fuel reprocessing in the civilian sector with foreign assistance. The plant would have a capacity to treat about 100 tonnes of spent fuel annually, similar to the two plants now operating in India. A pilot plant for fabrication of the MOX fuel is also under construction that can produce 500 kg of fuel in a year. Larger commercial plants for reprocessing and fuel fabrication are planned to be built by 2020. Initially fuel for the proposed BN800 reactors is expected to be supplied by Russia.

Russia has built and successfully operated two smaller versions of the BN800 design that were fuelled entirely with enriched uranium. One of them, the BN350 version, began operation in Kazakhstan in 1972 but was shutdown in 1994 for lack of funds for continued operation. The second one (BN600) with a capacity of 600 MWe was started up in Beloyarsk in Russia in 1980 and is still in operation. Based on the experience so gained Russia is now building the larger sized reactor of 800 MWe capacity (BN800) in Beloyarsk. It is expected to be commissioned in 2014. That China has opted to start building reactors of this type even before the commissioning of BN800 is indicative of the keenness to introduce fast reactors at an early date.

With little plutonium available, China must be looking to fast reactors that can breed plutonium. But, the Russian BN800 reactor was designed to burn plutonium. It is most likely that a modified design is being offered to China.

China envisages deployment of a number of fast reactors with a total capacity of 200,000 MWe by 2050. China is apparently not confident of assured uranium supply for a programme based largely on light water reactors (LWRs). Indigenous capacity for production of enriched uranium and fabrication of fuel elements for the LWRs is being increased substantially. But, the country would have to depend on supply of natural uranium from external sources.

There may be other reasons as well for China setting aside plans for indigenous fast reactor design and opting for the Russian BN800 design. The agreement with Russia also provides for cooperation in establishing associated fuel cycle facility to recover plutonium from the spent fuel. The BN800 reactor can accept mixed oxide fuel or metallic fuel with the latter making significant breeding possible.

The cost of the BN800 reactor at Beloyarsk as estimated in 2001 was about one billion US dollars. A more recent estimate suggests it could be as high as $2.5 billion inclusive of R&D expenses. The budget earmarked for BN 800 construction in 2010 alone amounted to about 460 million US dollars. It is not known what price the Chinese are paying for it. China has the advantage that it enjoys a significant surplus in its trade with Russia.

China has already signed up with the French firm Areva for setting up two plants. One of these can treat annually 800 tonnes of spent fuel discharged by the LWRs and recover plutonium from it. The other would fabricate and supply plutonium fuel in mixed oxide form to feed the fast reactors. Together, the plants are expected to cost about $ 13 billion. Reports say the agreement with Areva is for a feasibility study but surprisingly also add that once the plants are completed – which may take ten years – Areva would operate them!

The fast breeder programmes in India and China were initiated at about the same time in the mid-sixties. China began with a zero power reactor fuelled entirely with 50 kg of HEU metal that was built for experimental purposes. Around the same time, India had set up the PURNIMA 1, a similar facility but with a core containing 21 kg of plutonium oxide.

Later, when the Fast Breeder Test Reactor was commissioned in India in 1985, China had just begun preliminary design work on the CEFR with help from Russia. While major equipment for the CEFR were supplied and erected by Russian companies, the FBTR was predominantly an Indian effort supplemented by French assistance in design. Fuel chosen for the FBTR was a novel composition consisting of a mixture of plutonium and uranium carbides and was manufactured at BARC.

India went on to launch construction of the Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (PFBR) of 500 MWe capacity in 2004. It was designed by Indian scientists and engineers. Indian industry is participating fully in the fabrication and erection of all the major equipment. It is expected it to be completed in about a year or so. It is believed that fabrication of fuel for the reactor has already begun. The reactor will have an onsite fuel recycle facility that is also under construction.

By opting for the readymade design of BN800 reactor from Russia with assured supply of fuel, China has indicated its intention to leapfrog over India. It is fully exploiting its status as a recognized nuclear weapons power that has enabled free and full cooperation in nuclear matters from various quarters.

(The writer, Mr L.V.Krishnan, is former Director- Safety Research Group, Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research, Govt of India, Kalpakkam, Tamil Nadu,India. Email:krishnan97@gmail.com)

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