Russia offers to partner India in developing fast breeder reactors

Russia, a leader in Fast Neutron Reactors (FNRs), has offered to partner India in its three-stage nuclear power programme that eventually aims to harness the thorium fuel cycle for the generation of nuclear power. As a first step in this direction both countries have decided to look at jointly developing a ''new generation'' of fast neutron reactors, domain-b.com reported.

Fast reactors, commonly known as 'breeders' because they breed more fissile material than they consume, make up the second stage of the country's three-stage nuclear programme. Such reactors use 'fast' or high energy neutrons to sustain the fission process, in contrast to water-cooled reactors that use 'thermal' or low energy neutrons.  Source: www.climateandfuel.com

According to the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) officials, the two countries will now work on plans to develop a ''new generation'' fast neutron reactor. A proposal in this regard was forwarded by the Russian side in the course of the official visit of their president, Dmitry Medvedev, to India earlier last month.

Fast breeders join the first and third stages of India's nuclear programme, domain-b.com said. In the first stage, 20 Pressurised Heavy Water Reactors (PHWRs), fuelled by natural uranium, are already in operation. The second stage envisages building a series of breeder reactors that will use plutonium reprocessed from the PHWRs' spent fuel and depleted uranium.

In the third stage, reactors will use thorium and uranium-233 to generate electricity.

According to domain-b.com, India is a recognised leader in the field of 'breeder' technology and the only country in the world that has developed a power generation programme that consciously seeks to tap 'breeder' technology. Where as Russia, a leader in fast neutron reactors, has in operation a 600-MWe fast breeder reactor. The 'BN-600' reactor has been in operation since 1980.

India has abundant reserves of thorium - an estimated 360,000 tonnes or about 25 per cent of the world's thorium reserves. Such reserves are estimated to be able to feed nuclear projects for an estimated 2,500 years, domain-b.com said.

Breeder reactors

The World Nuclear Association says Fast Neutron Reactors are a technological step beyond conventional power reactors because they offer the prospect of vastly more efficient use of uranium resources and the ability to burn actinides which are otherwise the long-lived component of high-level nuclear wastes.

Generation IV nuclear reactor designs, the association says, are largely FNRs and international collaboration on FNR designs is proceeding with high priority.

The Association says about 20 FNR have already been operating, some since the 1950s, and some supplying electricity commercially. About 400 reactor-years of operating experience have been accumulated to the end of 2010. The FNR was originally conceived to burn uranium more efficiently and thus extend the world's uranium resources - it could do this by a factor of about 60.

But higher availability of uranium ore and technical and material problems encountered in developing Fast Breeder Reactor programmes made it clear that FBR technology would not be commercially competitive with existing light water reactors for some time, domain-b.com says. Today much progress has been made on the technical front, but the economics of FNRs still depends on the value of the plutonium fuel which is bred and used, relative to the cost of fresh uranium.

According to domain-b.com, another important point of view that has to be kept in mind while considering this technology is the fact that as the world tries to tackle nuclear proliferation and cuts back on nuclear weapons then breeder technology comes in handy in the disposal of ex-military plutonium, and there are proposals to use fast reactors (as "burners") for this purpose.

Both, in respect of efficiency, and disposal of vast stocks of military-grade plutonium the technology is important.

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