Russian fast reactor program stalls while economy plummets

beloyarskrosenergoatom The BN-800 reactor, one of Russia's two functioning breeder reactors. Credit: Rosenergoatom

Russian state nuclear corporation Rosatom has pushed back a major fast neutron reactor building program, dubbed the “breakthrough” program, over the country’s dire economic straights, Russia media reported.

The $1.8 billion project, called “proryv” in Russian, and seeks to built a BREST-OD-300 lead-cooled fast reactor to spearhead the country’s advance on a closed nuclear cycle, is one of the most expensive Rosatom has undertaken.

It’s no surprise, said Alexander Nikitin, chairman of the Environmental Rights Center Bellona, that the expansive program is floundering in Moscow’s financial downturn.

Originally scheduled to begin construction in 2020, the reactor project has been postponed to an unspecified date, the Russian business daily Kommersant reported.

“It’s not project breakthrough, it’s project abscess,” said Nikitin.

Kommersant captured the spirit of ridicule in its headline: “Fast Reactors are Slow to Build.”

Project proryv is Russia’s next major foray into creating a totally closed nuclear cycle, meaning that spent nuclear fuel from reactors that is piling up – Russia has a reported 22,000 tons – is theoretically easily reprocessed into fresh fuel. This would allow Russia to run its nuclear power on dwindling native and worldwide uranium resource.

Fast neutron reactors, also called “breeders,” have been the holy grail of the world nuclear industry for decades. Russia has pursued the technology with mixed results, but has arguably gotten further than anyone else.

The country launched its first breeder in 1980, the sodium cooled BN-600 at the Beloyarsk Nuclear Power Plant. The BN-800 model at the same plant, which runs on mixed uranium and plutonium oxide fuel, started commercial operation late last year. The larger model BN-1200, also at Beloyarsk, which was scheduled to launch in 2025, was put on hold last year.

The BREST-OD-300 is Rosatom’s pilot program to try to expand and perfect the technology. It’s been planning to build it in the closed nuclear company town of Seversk, near Tomsk, at the Siberian Chemical Plant.

It’s also expensive, and its costs, sources in Rosatom told Kommersant, are exploding to a point where the company itself had to take the reactor building project out of its 2016 federal budget request.

The Ministry of the Economy is now reviewing the budget for the BREST-OD-300 program, said the newspaper. Rosatom is meanwhile trying to shave $80 million of the reactor price.

Yet, Rosatom says it’s already started building one of the most important components of the project: the uranium and plutonium fuel fabrication and refabrication module, which is critical to the project’s aim of reducing uranium quotients in fuel by a fifth. Because of this, Rosatom prefers to say it’s “optimizing” rather than “delaying” the reactor’s launch.

The biggest factor in the delay, reported Nuclear Engineering International, a trade publication, is that the tender selection process for many of the suppliers for the reactor hasn’t started.

Nonetheless, other facilities necessary to fuel the reactor, when it’s eventually built, are proceeding. Construction of the fuel fabrication module for dense nitride fuel began in August 2014 and installation of the equipment is underway, according to the RIA Tomsk news portal in Siberia.

In a fit of nuclear town esprit de corps, Sergei Tolchin, head of the Siberian Chemical Plant, rushed to deny there was any delay in the reactor project, saying construction would begin in 2017 or 2018, which was denied by Rosatom two days later.

Despite the fact that the reactor project is beginning to feel like a Rosatom money pit, Alexander Uvarov, editor of the site said the reactor project had cost too much money so far to abandon.