Energy & Resources

Breeding fast

After a lull in nuclear power announcements, Beijing makes a big one

Remember this? The Fukushima disaster put new nuclear builds on hold

In the northern forests of Finland, a network of underground tunnels is slowly being chiselled out of the bedrock. The tunnellers hope that by 2100, when the 400-metre deep Onkalo ‘cave’ will be complete, it will be ready to house the country’s nuclear waste for the following 100,000 years.

China has a different, but equally controversial solution, for the processing of nuclear waste. It’s called ‘fast breeder’ technology.

In the weeks after the earthquake-induced nuclear shutdown at Japan’s Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant, China’s State Council promised to hold off on new plant approvals until safety rules had been revised.

Debate raged between officials, experts and journalists on the risks of nuclear power: especially the proximity of Chinese power stations to fault lines, the robustness of their safety features and the rising expense of much of the technology itself.

None of that appears to have put off the nuclear bosses, who announced last week that they’d started up their first ‘fast neutron reactor’ on the outskirts of the Chinese capital.

Nuclear plant ‘863’ is now feeding power to the Beijing grid. It uses a blend of highly enriched uranium and plutonium, which operates at a higher temperature than conventional nuclear plants, and is cooled with liquid sodium instead of water.

The ‘fourth generation’ reactor may be a relatively small one, but it’s being hailed as a major technolgical breakthrough by the country’s scientists. (Just as the bullet trains have been this year, too, which gives pause for thought.)

Proponents of the technology claim that one of its main advantages is that it will deplete China’s modest uranium stockpile at a lesser pace, and won’t consume as much of the country’s (already scarce) water supplies.

But potentially the main benefit: in theory at least, the waste fuel it creates can be rendered inert in just 400 years (considerably shorter than the 100,000 years planned for by the Finns).

But if the new technology is so promising, what’s holding back so many other countries from using it? Right now, only two countries have ‘fast reactors’ over 100MW: Russia and Japan. Similar plants in the US, France and Germany have been closed, either because of their high capital costs or due to safety concerns.

The first experimental plant came online in the US back in 1951, but fast reactors have been notoriously difficult to build on a larger scale. That’s partly due to how chemicals change properties at high temperatures, and partly because the sodium coolant is highly flammable when exposed to oxygen. (Despite designs to prevent them, sodium leaks have been reported at facilities in a number of countries, including the US, UK, France and Japan.)

Opponents also point out that the technology uses higher speed neutrons than conventional reactors, so any chain reaction would be harder to control (raising the risk of meltdown).

But China’s nuclear lobby still wants to move ahead quickly with the new reactor design, and there are plans to build two larger 800MW ‘fast breeder’ plants over the next couple of years.

But only time will tell whether China has found solutions to questions surrounding their safety, and whether that offsets their advantages in producing a lesser load of nuclear waste.

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