Holy grail or epic fail? Russia readies to commission first plutonium breeder against uninspiring global track record

At Beloyarsk Nuclear Power Plant on the day of the BN-800’s launch.
At Beloyarsk Nuclear Power Plant on the day of the BN-800’s launch.
Sergei Ten /

Publish date: August 4, 2014

Written by: Galina Raguzina

VILNIUS—As it celebrates reaching first criticality at the BN-800 reactor at Beloyarsk Nuclear Power Plant, after many years and billions of rubles spent on construction, Russia displays its unwavering commitment to plutonium-fueled breeder reactors, still calling them a “promising field” and still nurturing hopes that have been tried and failed in other nuclear heavyweights – including the United States, which is reconsidering its own plutonium fuel program.

VILNIUS—As it celebrates reaching first criticality at the BN-800 reactor at Beloyarsk Nuclear Power Plant, after many years and billions of rubles spent on construction, Russia displays its unwavering commitment to plutonium-fueled breeder reactors, still calling them a “promising field” and still nurturing hopes that have been tried and failed in other nuclear heavyweights – including the United States, which is reconsidering its own plutonium fuel program.

On June 27, Russia achieved first criticality at Unit 4 of Beloyarsk Nuclear Power Plant, in Sverdlovsk Region in the Urals, where the BN-800 – a sodium-cooled fast neutron breeder reactor – had been under construction since 1983. The unit will run on mixed-oxide, or MOX, fuel, a blend of uranium and plutonium oxides. Russia’s only reactor of this type, the lesser-capacity BN-600, has been in operation at Beloyarsk’s Unit 3 since 1980, though the BN-600 runs on uranium fuel.

On July 23, fuel loading was completed at the unit, Russian reports said.

MOX fuel is fabricated using plutonium extracted from spent nuclear fuel or weapons-grade plutonium – something that proponents of fast neutron reactors argue could help dispose of nuclear waste and surplus plutonium as a legacy of the Cold War.

Fast neutron breeder reactors, however, produce – or breed – more plutonium than they consume, which, critics say, is itself a proliferation risk.

Reporting on the “physical start-up” of the BN-800 in its June 27 story (in Russian), the Russian RIA Novosti news agency said the reactor “is expected to become a prototype of commercial reactors for the nuclear power industry of the future” and that fast neutron reactors are meant “not just to expand significantly the fuel resources of the nuclear power industry,” but also close the fuel cycle by minimizing nuclear waste.

As the World Nuclear Association reports, the BN-800 – estimated at $2.05 billion – “is represented as the first Generation III reactor which, after 2020, will start to take a large share of Russian capacity as older designs are phased out. Fast reactors are projected as comprising some 14 [gigawatts] by 2030 and 34 [gigawatts] of [electric power] capacity by 2050.”

RIA Novosti also cites Alexander Uvarov, a nuclear expert and editor-in-chief of the nuclear online newspaper, as saying the reactor is slated to start supplying power to the grid “within the next few months, after the power launch.” Earlier, RIA Novosti’s report said, the Russian State Atomic Energy Corporation Rosatom’s first deputy CEO for operations management Alexander Lokshin told the press the fourth unit was scheduled for commercial power launch in October this year.

According to a press release by Rosatom’s electric power division and nuclear power plant operator company, Rosenergoatom, the unit is to reach rated capacity in 2015.

Uvarov, according to the RIA Novosti story, “believes the importance of the BN-800’s launch cannot be overstated”: “This is not the first fast reactor in the world or in our country. But it has become the first fast reactor built and launched by Russia. It is a pleasure to see that our nuclear engineers have carefully preserved the experience accumulated in the fast [reactor] field in the USSR and are successfully developing it […],” Uvarov told the news agency.

Rosenergoatom’s press release also hails the “special significance” of the BN-800’s launch “not just for Russia, but on the global scale as well, as fast neutron reactors are a promising field of development for the nuclear power industry in a whole range of countries.” The press release quotes Beloyarsk’s director Mikhail Bakanov as saying the event was “a long-awaited joyous day for all of us” and expressing confidence that “the BN-800 will work reliably just like its predecessor, the BN-600.”

Environmentalists’ sober warnings

But environmentalists call attention to the numerous incidents that shed doubt on the “reliability” of the BN-600. They also point out that the world’s leading nuclear states that have at one point or another pursued plutonium-based power technologies have seen their breeder reactors run into abundant problems during operation, so further development was eventually discontinued.

The launch of the BN-800, environmentalists say, means pushing on with a dangerous experiment – burning plutonium from dismantled nuclear warheads in a reactor designed several decades ago based on a technology that has not proven successful anywhere in the world. A bad enough incident disrupting normal operation could, they warn, result in plutonium contamination of Sverdlovsk Region and surrounding territories.

The Beloyarsk plant is located 45 kilometers away from Russia’s fourth-largest city and major industrial hub of Yekaterinburg.

Last October, over 40 Russian experts, journalists, and representatives of leading environmental and other NGOs signed a joint position on the use of atomic energy (in Russian), where they stated their firm opposition to plutonium-producing technologies and use of power technologies based on uranium-plutonium fuel.

“I fully share in the environmental community’s worry regarding Rosatom’s plans to use weapons-grade plutonium as fuel for [nuclear power plants]. I understand the industry’s desire to loop the nuclear cycle, to create waste-free production, but it’s a foolhardy idea akin to the dream of inventing a perpetual motion machine,” Russia’s prominent ecologist, academician Alexei Yablokov said in 2010 in a comment to a Yekaterinburg-based newspaper (in Russian) about the presentation in that city of the environmental group Ecodefense’s report “Russian plutonium program: Nuclear waste, accidents, and senseless huge costs.”

“The totally unprepared experiments with weapons-grade plutonium show that the Russian nuclear energy industry, less-than-safe as it is, is entering an even more dangerous stage,” Yablokov said.

According to Alexander Nikitin, chairman of the board of the Environmental Rights Center Bellona in St. Petersburg, “fully closing the [nuclear fuel] cycle won’t happen.”

“It’s unclear how successful the new [spent nuclear fuel] reprocessing technologies that will be tested at the Pilot Demonstration Center in Zheleznogorsk will turn out to be. If they prove just as ‘dirty’ as the technologies in use at Mayak then this experiment can be deemed a fiasco, and the money thrown down the drain,” Nikitin told Bellona.

Nikitin was referring to a facility under construction at the Mining and Chemical Combine in Zheleznogorsk in Krasnoyarsk Region that Rosatom anticipates will operate using innovative third-generation spent fuel reprocessing technologies. According to Nikitin, the Pilot Demonstration Center’s management claims the new technology will practically rule out generation of liquid radioactive waste – one of the big problems associated with reprocessing – and that all the radioactive waste generated during reprocessing will be solid radioactive waste that could be disposed of at a disposal site under development in Zheleznogorsk.

The Pilot Demonstration Center is also expected to serve as the basis for a future reprocessing plant with a capacity starting at 1,500 tons a year. The first stage of the new facility, with an annual capacity of 100 tons, is slated for commissioning in 2017.

And Mayak, based in Ozyorsk, Chelyabinsk Region – the birthplace of the Soviet bomb-grade uranium and plutonium production program and currently Russia’s only plant that reprocesses spent nuclear fuel from power, research, and propulsion reactors – is infamous for the levels of contamination it has wreaked on surrounding areas over the several decades of operation. Part of this is due to the highly environmentally dirty reprocessing technologies in use that have resulted in the generation of the majority of Russia’s solid, liquid, and gaseous radioactive waste of various levels of activity and the decades-long practice of dumping radioactive waste in adjacent lakes and the river Techa.

Plutonium is one of the most hazardous substances both for its overall chemical toxicity and, mostly importantly, the level of radiation damage it does to internal organs and tissues. The principal routes of entry of plutonium into the body are via the respiratory organs, the gastrointestinal tract, and through the skin. Upon entering the human body, plutonium starts irradiating with alpha particles those tissues where it becomes lodged. Following inhalation or ingestion, alpha-emitting microparticles of plutonium remain in the body for what is practically an indefinite period of time (plutonium elimination half-life is 50 to 200 years), depositing on the surfaces of the lungs or on the gastric mucosa, and migrating into the blood circulatory system. Some 50 percent of plutonium is deposited in bone tissue and 30 percent in the liver, which presents a risk of development of oncological disease. Plutonium aerosol is also capable of dispersing over great distances and accumulating in soil.

There are already territories in Russia that have been exposed to plutonium contamination, including areas surrounding both Mayak – with various estimates pegging surface contamination density at up to 3,000 becquerels per square meter (in Russian) within a radius of 100 to 400 kilometers as of 1996 – and the Mining and Chemical Combine in Zheleznogorsk.

Russia already has territories that have been exposed to plutonium contamination, including the area around the industrial complex Mayak in Chelyabinsk Region, the birthplace of the Soviet weapons-grade plutonium production program and the location of Russia’s only spent fuel reprocessing plant. The area also suffered massive contamination as a result of the severe radiation accident known as the 1957 Kyshtym disaster. Above: a radiation warning sign on the river Techa near Mayak. (Photo: Alla Slapovskaya, Alisa Nikulina/ Ecodefense/ Heinrich Boell Stiftung Russia)

Fast reactors’ cost and safety disappointments

Russian environmental organizations have protested against burning weapons-grade plutonium in commercial reactors since the late 1990s. In 2000, Russia and the US signed a plutonium disposition treaty in which each side agreed to dispose of at least 34 tons of weapons plutonium made surplus by the reductions in its Cold War nuclear arsenal. The Russian side rejected the idea of vitrification as a way to dispose of the surplus plutonium by immobilizing it with no possibility of further extraction, and suggested using the material as fuel for power reactors. This marked the beginning of Russia’s plutonium program that was slated for implementation between 2007 and 2024 and envisioned building MOX fuel production facilities in both countries and burning MOX fuel in Russian fast neutron reactors.

Now, fourteen years later, Russia launches its first MOX-fueled fast reactor, the BN-800, and is also preparing, according to a June report by the news agency ITAR-TASS (in Russian), to commission before year’s end a MOX fuel production line at Rosatom’s Mining and Chemical Combine in Zheleznogorsk. The facility is expected to reach design capacity by 2016, the report said citing the combine’s general director Pyotr Gavrilov.

According to the World Nuclear Association, the BN-800 will run on initial fuel of about 75 percent of uranium and some MOX fabricated at Mayak, changing over to full load of pelletized MOX by 2017, when the Zheleznogorsk plant is expected to reach full production and the fuel is tested.

Yet in the sixty years that closed fuel cycle technologies – including those based on MOX-fueled breeder reactors – have been researched and tried in countries with advanced nuclear programs they have not managed to get any significant traction: Attempts have been made and have failed. For instance, Germany’s experimental SNR-300 fast reactor, built in 1985 in Kalkar, wasn’t even in operation for one single day – much as a MOX production plant in Hanau – and is now the site of an amusement park.

Japan’s pilot fast reactor at Monju Nuclear Power Plant was shut down in 1995, soon after it first reached criticality, due to a fire caused by a sodium leak, and when a test launch was attempted again 15 years later, in 2010, a 3.3-ton refueling machine was dropped into the reactor vessel during fuel replacement and got submerged immediately in liquid sodium. The device was not recovered until the following year. Finally, this year Japan moved to abandon the multi-billion Monju fast neutron experiment entirely, AFP reported in February. As Tesiaes.Ru, a website dedicated to energy production news and discussion, said (in Russian), the Monju plant “was in operation for a very short time, mostly idling in repairs and adjustments, only demanding large funds to support it and yielding no profit whatsoever.”

France’s fast neutron power reactor Superphenix, launched in 1985, was already offline by 1991 following a series of incidents and accidents, and in 1997 France ultimately discontinued further attempts at successful operation. The performance record of its predecessor, the small-capacity Phenix, which had been taken online in 1973 and used as a research reactor until 2009, was punctuated by sodium leaks, fires, reactivity incidents, and long periods of downtime.

“It is not so much the machine that failed but the plutonium system,” Mycle Schneider, a well-known nuclear analyst and consultant and then-director of the anti-nuclear group World Information Service on Energy WISE-Paris, said in 2000 on the shutdown of the Superphenix.

As for Russia’s BN-600 – which has now been operating for four years beyond its engineered lifespan – the reactor’s purported “reliability” is likewise a matter of debate, environmentalists say.

As Ecodefense’s report “Russian plutonium program” said in 2010, “[o]ne of the serious problems of the BN-600 operation is a possible leak of sodium. There were 27 leaks at the unit, five of them occurred in systems with radioactive sodium, 14 were accompanied by burning of sodium, and five were caused by improper maintenance or repair operations or by the unit input/output operations.”

“What they’re doing now at Beloyarsk [Nuclear Power Plant] is covering the ground France was covering 30 years ago: Over the 30 years of operating the BN-600, it had 30 incidents connected with sodium leaks and fires,” Ecodefense’s co-chairman Vladimir Slivyak told Bellona.

The great promise that bred new threats

Citing excessive costs, the US Administration has proposed freezing the construction of a MOX fuel production plant – a project commissioned to Shaw AREVA MOX Services – at Savannah River Site in South Carolina and finding another way to dispose of the country’s surplus weapons plutonium. Above: an aerial shot of construction works at the site. (Photo:

Plutonium-fueled reactors that could produce more fuel than they consumed – an idea that was first taken up for research in the United States in the 1940s and was subsequently embraced in the Soviet Union, Japan, France, India, the United Kingdom, and Germany, initially in order to offset the perceived risk of running out of uranium reserves in an anticipated large-scale deployment of nuclear power capacities all over the world, and then to solve the problem of spent fuel disposal – have failed to live up to expectations. They never managed to become either more cost-efficient or more safe and reliable than their light-water counterparts, which, instead, have become what now is the bulk of the global reactor fleet. This is the conclusion presented in “Fast Breeder Reactor Programs: History and Status,” a 2010 report by the International Panel on Fissile Materials (IPFM), which provides an ample outline of the major nuclear players’ struggles with the breeder concept.

(A disclaimer to the report’s overview chapter states that not all of the authors concur with all the conclusions in that chapter, and, specifically, the author of the section on the USSR-Russia fast-neutron reactor program does not share the “pessimistic conclusions about the future of fast breeder reactors.” The Soviet-Russian chapter does cite the data on sodium leaks and fires at the BN-600 – the largest leak, it says, was 1,000 liters – but states that experience gained with the BN-600 and earlier models suggested sodium’s proclivity for burning in water is not a major issue for fast-neutron-reactor safety. It acknowledges, though, that from the very beginning, “leaders of the fast-neutron reactor development program had safety concerns.”)

The threat of proliferation, a risk associated with the separation and repeated use of plutonium, has likewise not been solved, as the initial assumption suggested.

Because the plutonium needed for breeder reactors is separated from spent fuel via reprocessing, the material becomes more accessible for would-be weapons-makers, the report says, citing the example of India, which used the first plutonium separated for its breeder reactor program to make a “peaceful nuclear explosion” in 1974.

Contrary to predictions made in the 1970s of thousands of breeder reactors operating worldwide in 40 years, breeder commercialization is now expected no earlier than 2050, IPFM says, while in the meantime, “the world has to deal with the legacy of the dream” – approximately 250 tons of separated weapon-usable plutonium accumulated in France, India, Japan, Russia and the United Kingdom.

The United States has considered solving the proliferation problem by leaving some of the transuranic elements mixed with the separated plutonium, the report says, but the gamma radiation field surrounding the mix would still be less than one-hundredth the level the International Atomic Energy Agency deems self-protecting against theft and thousands of times less than the radiation field surrounding plutonium when it is in spent fuel. The Department of Energy (DOE) rejected that idea.

Subsequently, the same fate came to the prospect of producing MOX fuel as well.

In March this year, the Obama Administration has proposed mothballing the MOX fuel production facility under construction at Savannah River Site in South Carolina, a project planned as part of following on the bilateral agreement signed with Russia on the disposition of weapons-grade plutonium starting from 2007 and has already cost $8 billion.

According to an Associated Press story, construction of the plant, slated for commissioning in 2016, will continue until the end of fiscal year in September, but “plans to mothball the multibillion dollar program eventually are still in the works.” The US administration says the project is too expensive and suggests exploring other methods to dispose of the plutonium, the story said.

Federal authorities, according to the AP, estimate the project’s cost at about $30 billion over the years it is in use. The AP cites a DOE report listing such alternatives to MOX as fast reactors – which the US does not currently have (at a life cycle cost of more than $50 billion), mixing the plutonium with other waste to make it unusable, or “downblending” (more than $16 billion), vitrification or burning plutonium in other reactor types (over $30 billion each option).

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) commended the administration’s decision:

“Converting [weapons-grade] plutonium to a form that would be harder to steal or reuse in nuclear weapons is an essential long-term goal,” Edwin Lyman, a senior scientist in the UCS Global Security Program, said in the organization’s statement. “But the MOX strategy would have greatly increased near-term risks by making it easier for terrorists to steal plutonium during processing, transport or storage at reactors.”

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