Deep inside Siberia, on the eastern side of the Ural Mountains, near a place called Zarechny, 42 km from Yekaterinburg, Russia’s atomic energy company, Rosatom, is building something unique—the world’s biggest fast breeder reactor.

The 1,200 MW giant, christened BN-1,200, follows Russia’s successful operation of another fast breeder reactor, BN-800, for eight years. Russia’s fast breeder reactor programme echoes around the nuclear world, including in India, which is building a 500 MW Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (PFBR).

Only on March 4, in the presence of Prime Minister Modi, did a significant milestone take place in PFBR—the loading of fuel (or ‘core loading’).

Many countries are watching Russia build a 1,200 MW fast breeder as a possible template for themselves.

Fast breeder reactors (or fast neutron reactors) are a class of nuclear power plants that are designed to produce energy from nuclear fission but also “breed” more fuel than they consume for the fission reaction. As the atoms of fissile material (usually, Uranium-235) split to produce heat, the neutrons that escape from the fission reaction bombard a ‘blanket’ of naturally available U-238, making another nuclear fuel called Plutonium-239. Since these reactors produce more Plutonium-239 than the Uranium-235 they consume, they are called breeder reactors. It is also possible to have a blanket of Thorium, a ‘fertile material’ (that India has abundance of), so that the Thorium mutates into a ‘fissile material’, Uranium-233.

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The world gave up the once-popular breeder reactors decades ago, as enough Uranium was discovered and mined, obviating the need to go through the cumbersome process of making Plutonium in a costlier breeder reactor. Breeder reactors are typically useful in a situation of Uranium shortage—a situation that triggered India to start working on the PFBR.

Why then is Russia, which is not short of Uranium, building such a big fast breeder reactor, that too alongside two other operational one, the BN-800 and BN-600? (BN stands for ‘Beloyarsk Nuclear’.)

The answer is simple: the combination of a fast breeder reactor and a group of conventional, light water reactors works best, Ilya Filin, First Deputy Chief Engineer, Beloyarsk NPP told businessline.

VVER reactors

“You can take the spent fuel from the VVER (Russia’s light water reactors—the same type as in Kudankulam, India), reprocess it and put it into the BN (fast breeder reactor),” he said. And then, you can take the fuel bred at the fast breeder reactor and put it into the VVER. “This reduces the need for parent fuel in the VVERs,” he said. Other officials said that a combination of one breeder reactor and four light water reactors works best.

India has two operating VVER reactors, 1000 MW each, at Kudankulam and is building a 500 MW fast breeder. Filin replied in the affirmative when asked if this was a good combination.

India’s PFBR has been “under construction” since 2002. In contrast, the BN-1200 is galloping. Andrey Smelov, leader of the technological team for the construction of BN-1200, said that the design is ready now, license from the regulator is expected in 2025, construction will begin in 2026 and the plant will be streaming electricity to the grid in 2032. “It is very ambitious,” Smelov said. Once in operation, the BN-1200 will be a reference plant for Russia’s sales pitch to other countries who might want to buy similar reactors.

Russia is in the forefront of fast breeder reactors. The nuclear complex’s first two units that operated between 1964 – 1981 and 1967 – 1989, respectively, (not fast breeder plants) are right now being de-commissioned—a process that takes a few years. Unit-3, BN-600, a fast breeder reactor, was built in 1980 and in 2010, it was refurbished and modified to give it an extension of life till 2040.

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The fourth unit, BN-800, which went on stream on December 10, 2015. The proposed BN-1,200 is the fifth. BN-1200 is a ‘fourth generation’ reactor, which satisfies 26 criteria (such as safety, environment-friendliness) to earn the qualification. It can produce 1.15 times more fuel than it consumes; in contrast, its predecessor, BN-800, has a ‘breeding ratio’ of 1. Fuel assemblies need to be replaced once every 330 days, compared with 180 days of BN-800.

India has plans to build more fast breeder reactors after the PFBR goes on stream, of similar (500 MW) capacity.

Answering a question in a different context, a Rosatom official said that in fast breeder reactors, the bigger the size, the better the economics. It is possible to build ‘small (or even micro) modular reactors with fast breeder technology, but the economics may not work out well, he said.

The visit of this writer to Beloyarsk Nuclear Power Plant was sponsored by Rosatom