I just came across an interesting article from Nuclear Engineering International magazine from January indicating that China has broken ground and moving forward quickly on an experimental 65 MW fast-neutron nuclear reactor. The goal of the $350 million China Experimental Fast Reactor is to test and “accumulate experience on fast reactor design, construction and operation.” If China brings the CEFR online in 2010 – as is planned – it will be only the third power-generating fast reactor in the world. Another one is supposed to be up and operating this year in India, and planning is under way for one in Japan and Russia.
Fast reactor testing and construction on various scales has been around since the 1940s. The technology used in these reactors is considered superior because they use sodium as a coolant instead of water. The resulting “fast” neutrons have less tendency to be captured by uranium atoms and be converted to plutonium or higher actinides. The CEFR will use 260 tons of liquid sodium.
Obviously, interest in the fast reactors is fairly high given the pressure to use nuclear power as an alternative to high CO2 emitting fuels and as a stopgap until clean renewables achieve wider integration and market penetration.
The fuel used in the CEFR is UO2 (64.4% U-235). From a review of other literature quickly available, it’s unclear to me if CEFR would be considered to be a full “closed fuel cycle” type of facility, but its clear from this 1995 IAEA paper that it has always been the intention to have the facility be used for the transmutation of minor actinides to reduce the long-term radiological hazards.
In the case of a power failure, the CEFR has been designed with two independent, passive decay heat-removal systems using the natural convection and circulation of primary and secondary sodium and natural air cooling.
Apparently China will be building another demonstration fast reactor around 2020. After that, the nation plans to build a commercial-type fast reactor. Scaling up the size is important piece of China’s energy plans as the nation hopes to have a 1000-1500 MW reactor completed in 2028 and deployed before 2035. The article also notes that China wants to replace coal-fired power plants with fast reactors “in large scale after 2050.”