Rosatom breaks ground on nuclear waste-eating “gen IV” reactor

Russian nuclear engineer Rosatom has begun work on one of the world’s first fourth-generation nuclear reactors at a site owned by the Siberian Chemical Combine in the Tomsk region.

The 300MW Brest-OD-300 reactor will use "fast" neutrons, lead cooling, and a fuel mix of uranium and plutonium to create a unit that consumes most of its own waste.

Fast reactors are thought to be some 60 times more fuel-efficient than slow-neutron reactors; they generate less radioactive waste and can be used in a "closed cycle" system, in which waste is reprocessed into fuel.

They have not been widely commercialised yet because the faster neutrons travel, the harder it is to create and sustain a chain reaction. Previous generations of reactor used graphite "moderators" to slow neutrons and increase the likelihood that they would cause nuclear fission in fuel rods.

The groundbreaking ceremony was held last week at the Seversk site. It was attended by Alexey Likhachev, the director general of Rosatom, Sergei Zhvachkin, regional governor of Tomsk, and online by Rafael Grossi, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

In his speech at the opening, Likhachev said this design of "gen IV" reactor would mean that fuel for the nuclear power industry may become "practically inexhaustible", and that future generations would be spared the problem of dealing with toxic waste products with extremely long half-lives. 

"The successful implementation of this project will allow our country to become the world’s first owner of the nuclear power technology that fully meets the principles of sustainable development in terms of environment, accessibility, reliability and efficient use of resources," he said.

The Brest reactor is part of Rosatom’s "Breakthrough" programme, aimed at radically upgrading the nuclear industry’s technology. He said: "The implementation of this Breakthrough project embraces not just development of innovative reactors, but also introduction of the new generation technologies of nuclear fuel cycle."

If all goes according to plan, a fuel production facility will be built by 2023, work on an irradiated fuel reprocessing module will start by 2024 and the reactor itself will enter service in 2026.

According to Rosatom, the unit will be the world’s first nuclear complex to combine these three elements.

At present, no gen IV reactors have been built, although a number of projects are in development around the world. The most advanced is China’s CFR-600, another design of fast reactor that uses sodium as its coolant (see further reading).

Image: The groundbreaking ceremony was held last week (Rosatom)

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