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article imageThe case for fast neutron reactors heats up in the U.S.

By Karen Graham     Sep 17, 2018 in Technology
Congress is intent on passing The Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act, and as part of the act, the Department of Energy is directed lay the groundwork for establishing "a versatile, reactor-based fast neutron source."
The Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act (S. 97) originated in the Senate and passed a bipartisan vote in the House of Representatives last week.
The act will allow the private sector to partner with US National Laboratories in exploring advanced nuclear technologies. And basically, this is something that has been done for years, so it is nothing new, at first glance.
But the act also directs the DOE to pursue "a versatile, reactor-based fast neutron source." The thing is, the Senate also introduced a second bill called the Nuclear Energy Leadership Act (S. 3422) last Thursday.
This legislation was introduced by Republican Lisa Murkowski, Alaska's senior U.S. senator and chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.
The Fast Flux Test Facility (FFTF)  located on the Hanford Site in eastern Washington  is a 400-mega...
The Fast Flux Test Facility (FFTF), located on the Hanford Site in eastern Washington, is a 400-megawatt thermal reactor cooled by liquid sodium. It was built in 1978 to test plant equipment and fuel for the U.S. Government's liquid metal reactor development program.
United States Department of Energy
And on the heels of the Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act, this new legislation is much more specific - It directs the DOE to actually establish that fast neutron reactor and to "make available high-assay, low-enriched uranium" for research purposes. This bill has not yet made it past a Senate vote, reports ArsTechnica.
Senator Murkowski makes her case
Senator Murkowski used the Washington Examiner to lay out her case for advanced nuclear reactors on Monday.
Murkowski rightly points out that only two new nuclear power plants are under construction in the U.S. and existing plants are aging and being challenged economically by "low-cost natural gas and subsidized renewables."
"First, we are losing a major source of clean, always-on energy at a time when U.S. electricity needs are forecast to grow 29 percent by 2040. No other source, renewable or otherwise, meets anywhere near as much U.S. energy demand without emissions as nuclear power," Murkowski writes.
Senator Murkowski chaired an Energy Committee hearing on the economic and geopolitical implications ...
Senator Murkowski chaired an Energy Committee hearing on the economic and geopolitical implications of a stronger U.S.–EU energy relationship.
Senator lisa Murkowski
Then, Murkowski delves into the fact that more power plants being built worldwide are using Chinese companies, and "Russia, China, and South Korea have now surpassed us, and state-owned corporations are undercutting the United States in both price and time to market."
However, the good Senator throws in something that sounds like a threat - writing that we are "losing our ability to influence security and nonproliferation decisions. Taking our place — but not always sharing our views — are countries that could put world security interests at risk."
Fast Neutron Reactors
Senate Bill 3422 authorizes the construction of a versatile fast neutron source so our scientists and entrepreneurs are not forced to go to Russia or China to test reactor fuels and materials. Among other practical steps, it establishes a pilot project for the DOE to produce advanced reactor fuel until a long-term domestic supply can be developed.
Shevchenko BN350 desalination unit in 2006. This plant is the only shore based nuclear-heated desali...
Shevchenko BN350 desalination unit in 2006. This plant is the only shore based nuclear-heated desalination unit in the world.
Argonne National Laboratory
While Senator Murkowski doesn't really delve into any details concerning the "versatile fast neutron source," calling it " wonky stuff," there is a reason why this type of reactor technology has not been developed further in the U.S., even though we were the first country to pursue fast reactors for commercial use - they are very costly.
And this goes along with a recent paper published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) that suggested the reason new nuclear builds have stagnated is that the cost of construction is too high, not necessarily that reactor technology isn't developed enough.
But there is more to this story because there is a big difference between a fast neutron reactor and a thermal-neutron reactor. A fast neutron reactor needs no neutron moderator but requires fuel that is relatively rich in a fissile material when compared to that required for a thermal-neutron reactor.
Shevchenko BN350 nuclear fast reactor and desalination plant: Situated on the shore of the Caspian S...
Shevchenko BN350 nuclear fast reactor and desalination plant: Situated on the shore of the Caspian Sea the plant generates 135 MW(e) and provides steam for an associated desalination plant. View of the interior of the reactor hall in 2006.
Argonne National Laboratory
Given the limited reserves of uranium ore, and the rate that nuclear power was expected to take over baseload generation, through the 1960s and 1970s fast reactors were considered to be the solution to the world's energy needs. Through the 1970s, experimental fast reactor designs were examined, especially in the US, France and the USSR. However, this coincided with a crash in uranium prices.
Superphenix Nuclear power plant
The bottom line was that the reactors produced fuel that was much more expensive - on the order of $100 to $160 -and the few units that reached commercial operation proved to be economically disastrous. Interest in these reactors was further muted by Jimmy Carter's April 1977 decision to defer construction of the fast neutron reactors in the US due to proliferation concerns, and the terrible operating record of France's Superphénix reactor.
Superphénix or SPX was a nuclear power station prototype on the Rhône river at Creys-Malville in France, close to the border with Switzerland. Superphénix was a 1,242 MWe fast breeder reactor with the twin goals of reprocessing nuclear fuel from France's line of conventional nuclear reactors, while also being an economical generator of power on its own.
Superphenix Nuclear power plant in Creys-Malville  Isère  France in 2007.
Superphenix Nuclear power plant in Creys-Malville, Isère, France in 2007.
I Yann
Construction started in 1974 but wasn't completed until 1986. The plant was powered down in December 1996 for maintenance, and while it was closed it was subject to court challenges that prevented its restart. In June 1997, the newly elected Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin, announced that Superphénix would be closed permanently.
During 11 years, the plant had 53 months of normal operations (mostly at low power), 25 months of outages due to fixing technical problems of the prototype, and 66 months spent on halt due to political and administrative issues.
Superphénix was the last fast breeder reactor operating in Europe for electricity production. Total expenditures on the reactor to date are estimated at 60 billion francs (9.1 billion euro).
In 2016, noted that "fast reactors aren’t becoming mainstream. One country after another has abandoned the technology. Nuclear physicist Thomas Cochran summarises the history: “Fast reactor development programs failed in the: 1) the United States; 2) France; 3) the United Kingdom; 4) Germany; 5) Japan; 6) Italy; 7) the Soviet Union/Russia 8) U.S. Navy and 9) the Soviet Navy."
You could say that's message is simply that fast reactors would have a long way to go to make the case for this technology. Not only is it expensive as all get out, but the world doesn't have the expertise, yet, to overcome the problems that stopped their development in the first place.
More about fast reactor, Congress, Doe, Security risk, Clean energy
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