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Top Nuclear Scientists Discuss Fast Reactors and Related Fuel Cycles at IAEA International Conference

Yekaterinburg Russia

Some 700 nuclear engineers, scientists and decision-makers from more than 30 countries are meeting this week in Yekaterinburg, Russia, for high-level discussions on fast reactors (FRs) and related fuel cycles, which hold out the promise of providing clean and sustainable energy for thousands of years.

The International Conference on Fast Reactors and Related Fuel Cycles: Next Generation Nuclear Systems for Sustainable Development (FR17) is the third such IAEA gathering following events in Kyoto, Japan, in 2009 and Paris, France, in 2013. The 26-29 June conference is hosted by the Government of the Russian Federation through State Atomic Energy Corporation Rosatom, which oversees the world’s only FRs in commercial operation today, at Beloyarsk Nuclear Power Plant about 60 kilometres from Yekaterinburg.

Fast-neutron systems, which use fast neutrons without a moderator to sustain the fission chain reaction, are vastly more efficient in fuel utilisation than traditional thermal reactors. Capable of breeding and recycling nuclear fuel, they operate in a closed fuel cycle in which spent fuel is reused rather than treated as waste. They have the potential to significantly increase the sustainability of nuclear power and lessen the burden on geological repositories for nuclear waste.

Fast-neutron systems “can extract 60 to 70 times more energy from uranium than existing thermal reactors, and reduce the volume and toxicity of the final waste,” IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano said in a message to the conference. “I’m pleased that so many experts from all over the world have come together to share their knowledge and expertise. I have no doubt that this conference will move us a step closer to helping innovative nuclear energy systems become viable for industrial deployment in the coming decades.”

In his own message to participants, Rosatom Director General Alexey Likhachev said: “The future of the world’s nuclear power industry is inextricably linked with the development of closed nuclear fuel cycles, in which fast reactor technologies are an integral part. This allows us to say that, in the near future, the world's nuclear energy will truly be renewable.”

The most mature fast-reactor technology is the sodium-cooled FR, which has more than 400 reactor years of experience via the design, construction and operation of experimental, prototype, demonstration and commercial units in countries including China, France, Germany, India, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States. Other coolants under development include molten salt, lead, lead-bismuth and gas.

The conference will explore issues including reactor design concepts, safety and licensing, operations and decommissioning, fuels and fuel-cycle options, coolants, tests and simulations, economics and performance, proliferation resistance and physical protection, capacity building, and professional development.

Challenges to FR development include costs for investments, operations and maintenance. “Fast reactors will become more competitive once the technology matures, but also when uranium becomes more expensive and scarcer as a result of nuclear power undergoing extensive development in the coming decades,” said Vladimir Kriventsev, IAEA team leader for Fast Reactor Technology Development and Scientific Secretary for FR17.

The conference also showcases the competition Next Generation Nuclear Systems: The Force Awakens, for which nuclear scientists aged 36 and under from around the world submitted research papers. The winners will be announced at a special event on the last day of the conference.

“If fast reactor technology is to achieve its full promise, it will require the contributions of these brilliant young scientists,” Kriventsev said.