Nuclear's Second Wind:
Innovative "fast" nuclear power plants may be a strategic imperative

by Evgeny Adamov

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In my view, the way forward is to develop advanced nuclear power plants based on technologies that help deter the spread of nuclear weapons.

So, for example, while providing maximum access to nuclear technologies, nuclear States could address the non-proliferation problem, at first, by arranging - all on their own - energy production in needy regions of Asia and Africa. The use of nuclear energy, subsidised in its early development period in these regions, would be essentially non-commercial, and based on international assistance. The initiative thus might become a crucial factor in stabilising the political situation in areas of international conflicts - both known today and likely to appear in the future. At the same time, this initiative would fit excellently into the currently practised "design-build-operate" approaches and may well turn into major business for State-owned or international corporations as energy markets develop.

Can Nuclear Meet the Needs?

If nuclear power is to be considered as a strategic imperative for global economic and security, it is necessary to have a clear idea of its potential. Based on today's reactors and using an open fuel cycle (without reprocessing), nuclear power would use up the available reserves of reasonably priced uranium towards the end of this century. The total capacity of nuclear power plants would not rise much higher than the current level of about 350 GWe. By reprocessing and reusing fuel in thermal reactors, as practiced in some countries, a 15 to 20% increase in total power output could be attained. If thorium were used as fuel in addition to natural uranium, nuclear's potential contribution could be doubled at the most.

Fast Reactors

Fast reactors are not new, but their development is breaking new ground. Initially they were designed and configured to both consume and produce fuel. Such "breeder" reactors burn uranium fuels and breed plutonium that can be reprocessed and recycled to fuel reactors anew. France, Russia, Japan and other countries developed fast breeder reactors, though only a few generate electricity commercially today. Russia's BN-600, for example, has been supplying electricity to the grid since 1981.

Today's commercial nuclear plants mainly are "thermal" reactors that may or may not include fuel reprocessing. In basic terms, "fast" and "thermal" refer to what's happening inside the reactor core. In all types of reactors, the fission, or chain reaction, that generates heat is kept going by the energetic collision of neutrons with the fuel. In a thermal reactor, the neutrons are slowed down to what physicists call "low energy" by a moderator, such as graphite or water. In a fast reactor, the neutrons from the chain reaction are not slowed down and stay at "high energy".

For more technical information about fast reactors and what countries are doing, visit the IAEA's nuclear energy web pages at www.iaea.org.

The projected picture changes significantly if fast reactors are deployed and a closed fuel cycle is followed so that spent nuclear fuel is reprocessed and recycled for energy use. Nuclear then could provide all of the required increase to electric power production foreseen during the next few decades by the World Energy Congress (WEC). At a later point, nuclear would even be able to do away with constraints on fuel resources. The requirements of the Kyoto Protocol would be met automatically in this case and the greenhouse gas emissions of the power industry could be fixed at any predetermined level.

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