Alternative Nuclear Power: Pebble Bed Reactor

Written by Philip Proefrock on 11/12/11

This article is part of a series on alternative possibilities in nuclear power.
Previously at EcoGeek: Alternative Possibilities in Nuclear Power
Pebble Bed Reactor
The pebble-bed reactor was supposed to be another intrinsically safe, and "melt-down proof" design.
"Pebble bed reactors are helium-cooled, graphite-moderated reactors in which the fuel is in the form of
tennis ball-sized spherical "pebbles" encased in a graphite moderator. New fuel pebbles are continuously
added at the top of a cylindrical reactor vessel and travel slowly down the column by gravity, until they
reach the bottom and are removed." Cooling uses an inert gas such as helium, rather than a liquid, which
simplifies many of the reactor systems.
"The use of helium and graphite allows the reactor to burn the fuel efficiently and to operate at much
higher temperatures than conventional light water reactors." Since the pebble bed reactor was already
designed to operate at very high temperatures, and since its cooling medium was a gas, rather than a
liquid, the control systems for a pebble bed reactor could be much simpler. The largest problems that
need to be dealt with for a boiling water reactor - overheating andcoolant boiling away - are not
concerns for a pebble bed reactor. The pebble bed also produces less power as the temperature rises, so
the design is effectively self-limiting.
The pebble bed design offers some operational advantages, such as allowing the reacor to operate
constantly without needing to be shut down periodically for refueling. As each pebble makes its way
through the system and is drawn out at the bottom of the reactor, it can be tested and either reinserted
at the top of the reactor (the average pebble would cycle through the reactor about ten times before it
was expended) or withdrawn if it was spent. New fuel pebbles could also be added when needed to keep
the reactor operating.
Early experimental work with pebble bed reactors was carried out in Germany beginning in the 1960s.
Pebble bed reactors were thought to be a promising next step in reactor design. But several issues
operational made the pebble bed design less than ideal. Contaminated graphite dust is created from the
pebbles from friction as they move down through the reactor. Tests carried out with dummy pebbles also
found overheating conditions inside the reactor. The volume of radioactive waste from a pebble bed
reactor is larger than that from other designs, which presents more of a problem when dealing with
spent pebbles. And decomissioning the reactor may have higher costs because of the radioactivity of the
reactor components.
Because of these problems, the German project was abandoned by the 1980s, and rights to carry on the
work were obtained by a series of South African companies. However, after years of development, the
work on developing a pebble bed reactor has pulled curtailed<, and the company is now concentrating
solely on high-temperature industrial applications (such as coal gasification) for the technology. At
present, China remains the only country working on developing pebble bed technolo
These tennis ball-sized pebbles are made of pyrolytic graphite (which acts as the moderator), and they
contain thousands of micro-fuel particles called TRISO particles. These TRISO fuel particles consist of a
fissile material (such as 235U) surrounded by a coated ceramic layer of silicon carbide for structural
integrity and fission product containment. In the PBR, thousands of pebbles are amassed to create a
reactor core, and are cooled by a gas, such as helium, nitrogen or carbon dioxide, which does not react
chemically with the fuel elements
The unique feature of pebble bed reactors is the online refuelling capability in which the pebbles are
recirculated with checks on integrity and consumption of uranium. This system allows new fuel to be
inserted during operation and used fuel to be discharged and stored on site for the life of the plant. It is
projected that each pebble will pass through the reactor 6–10 times before discharge in a three year
period on average. With online refuelling, capability outages are determined by turbine generator
maintenance, which is expected to require six year maintenance intervals.
The Next Atomic Age: Can Safe Nuclear Power Work for America?
In an Idaho desert lies the epicenter of American nuclear energy research. Among the relics of early
reactor experiments there, the country's energy future is taking shape.
By Alex Hutchinson
Leaning over the rail of the metal catwalk, I peer down through 16 ft. of crystal-clear water at the
cool, blue glow coming from the shapes at the bottom: partially spent uranium fuel rods. "Blue," says
Joel Duling, my guide to America's most sophisticated nuclear test reactor, "not green like on The
Simpsons." The narrow canal snakes under the catwalk and makes a dogleg through an opening in the
wall into the reactorarea, a cavernous room that feels like a jet hangar. The top of the Advanced Test
Reactor (ATR) pokes unobtrusively above the concrete floor. Most of the 35-ft.-high steel cylinder
housing the reactor core lies underground. The chain reaction occurring there produces 250 megawatts—
enough to power 201,000 homes. But, the ATR does something more important than generate energy.
The machine tests fuels and alloys against the extreme conditions expected in exotic new reactors—
radical designs that could produce power in molten salt, snap together like LEGOs and operate without
water, safely and affordably fulfilling the decades-old dream of clean, abundant nuclear power.

The test reactor, part of the Department of Energy's (DOE) Idaho National Laboratory (INL), sits on an
890-square-mile tract of land known simply as "The Site." Located 45 minutes from Idaho Falls in the
southeastern corner of the state, this swath of windswept desert is the epicenter of American nuclear
energy research. Over the past half century, 51 reactors have been built here, including first-generation
prototypes of the 1950s; only three still operate. But it is among the relics of these early experiments that
the country's energy future is taking shape.

In recent years, the debate over nuclear power has moved to the front burner, spurred by concerns
about foreign oil and the specter of global warming. But what many on both sides of the issue often fail
to note is that America's 103 existing nuclear reactors are aging. Over the next few decades, they will
have to be decommissioned—taking 20 percent of the country's electrical supply with them.

In the Energy Policy Act of 2005, Congress approved up to $2.95 billion in incentives for new nuclear
plants, and set aside another $1.25 billion for an experimental reactor to be built here in the Idaho
desert. The reactor will be the centerpiece of a modern-day Manhattan Project, with scientists from
around the world working together to revolutionize the production of nuclear power.
Nuclear Shortcut

At the heart of every reactor is fuel—usually uranium—undergoing a chain reaction that generates heat
and fast-moving neutrons. A coolant draws away the heat and uses it to spin a turbine to generate
electricity, and a moderator slows the neutrons to keep the reaction under control. Any material used in
building a reactor has to withstand the heat—as well as intense pressure and a constant barrage of
neutrons—for the reactor's projected lifetime. To prove that a new alloy can last 25 years, you could put
it in a furnace for 25 years and bombard it with neutrons—or, if you don't want to wait that long, you can
use the ATR.

"It is like a time machine," says Duling, the facility's former deputy director. The reactor uses uranium
enriched to 92 percent (anything more than 20 percent is considered weapons-grade) to generate a
quadrillion neutrons per square centimeter per second—100 to 1000 times greater than commercial
reactors. By cranking up the neutron dose, the ATR can simulate as much as 40 years of wear and tear
on a new fuel or alloy in a single year.

The test reactor is a simple water-cooled model built in 1967. But by tuning the pressure, temperature
and chemistry inside its core, scientists can use it to reproduce the conditions in just about any other
type of reactor. Recently, they tested chunks of graphite to see whether it's safe to extend the life of
Britain's antiquated Magnox reactors. INL staff are now gearing up for an even bigger challenge: testing
parts for proposed Generation IV reactors, which would leap technologically two steps ahead of the Gen
II designs operating commercially in the United States today.

Despite concerns about catastrophic accidents and radioactive waste disposal, Gen II plants "are cost-
effective and working well, and safety continues to improve," says James Lake, INL's associate director.
Yet, no new reactors have been ordered in the States since the industry's peak sales year of 1973. Simple
economics quashed further growth.

Thanks to the 2005 congressional incentives, a dozen utilities around the country have once again started
the lengthy process of applying to build nuclear plants. If all goes smoothly, they could produce power by
the middle of the next decade. These reactors would be Generation III and III+ designs—evolutionary
improvements on today's Generation II reactors, which use water in some form as both a coolant and a

But, according to the DOE, what is really needed are even safer, cheaper reactors that produce less
waste and use fuel that's not easily adapted for weapons production. To develop this kind of reactor, 10
countries, including the United States, joined forces in 2000 to launch the Generation IV International
Forum. A committee of 100-plus scientists from participating countries evaluated more than 100 designs;
after two years, they picked the six best. All of the final Gen IV concepts make a clean break from past
designs. Some don't use a moderator, for instance. Others call for helium or molten lead to be used as
How It Works: Generation II and III Reactors:

All 103 nuclear power plants now operating in the United States employ light-water reactors, which use
ordinary water as both a moderator and a coolant. The next wave of nuclear plants has taken these
Generation II concepts to the next level, improving both safety and efficiency. Utilities plan to begin
building Generation III reactors by the end of the decade.

In a Gen II Pressurized Water Reactor, water circulates through the core [1] where it is heated by the
fuel's chain reaction. The hot water is then piped to a steam generator, and the steam spins a
turbine[2] that produces electricity. The Gen III Evolutionary Pressurized Reactor improves upon this
design primarily by enhancing safety features. Two separate 51-in.-thick concrete walls [3], the inner
one lined with metal, are each strong enough to withstand the impact of a heavy commercial airplane.
The reactor vessel sits on a 20-ft. slab of concrete with a leaktight "core catcher," [4] where the molten
core would collect and cool in the event of a meltdown. There are also four safeguard buildings [5]with
independent pressurizers and steam generators, each capable of providing emergency cooling of the
reactor core

Uranium in graphite "pebbles" may fuel future reactors.
Pebble Power

Kevan Weaver, like most of the lab's 3500 employees, works in a sprawling group of campus-like
buildings on the outskirts of Idaho Falls. Standing in his third-floor office, the fresh-faced nuclear
engineer holds what could be the future of nuclear power in his hand: a smooth graphite sphere about
the size of a tennis ball. It could take years to weigh the pros and cons of all six Gen IV designs, Weaver
says, but Congress can't wait that long. In addition to replacing the aging fleet of Generation II reactors,
the government wants to make progress on another front: the production of hydrogen, to fuel the dream
of exhaust-free cars running independent of foreign oil.

As a result, the frontrunner for the initial $1.25 billion demonstration plant in Idaho is a helium-cooled,
graphite-moderated reactor whose extremely high outlet temperature (1650 to 1830 F) would be ideal for
efficiently producing hydrogen. There are a couple of designs that could run that hot, but the "pebble
bed," so named for the fuel pebble that Weaver holds, is attracting particularly intense interest.

A typical pebble-bed reactor would function somewhat like a giant gumball machine. The design calls for
a core filled with about 360,000 of these fuel pebbles—"kernels" of uranium oxide wrapped in two layers
of silicon carbide and one layer of pyrolytic carbon, and embedded in a graphite shell. Each day about
3000 pebbles are removed from the bottom as fuel becomes spent. Fresh pebbles are added to the top,
eliminating the need to shut down the reactor for refueling. Helium gas flows through the spaces
between the spheres, carrying away the heat of the reacting fuel. This hot gas—which is inert, so a leak
wouldn't be radioactive—can then be used to spin a turbine to generate electricity, or serve more exotic
uses such as produce hydrogen, refine shale oil or desalinate water.

The pebbles are fireproof and almost impossible to use for weapons production. The spent fuel is easy
to transport and store, though there still remains the long-term problem of where to store it. And the
design of the nuclear reactor is inherently meltdown-proof. If the fuel gets too hot, it begins absorbing
neutrons, shutting down the chain reaction. In 2004, the cooling gas and secondary safety controls were
shut off at an experimental pebble-bed reactor in China—and no calamity followed, says MIT professor
Andrew Kadak, who witnessed the test.

Pebble-bed reactors also could be far more cost-effective than Gen II plants, which had an average
construction time of more than nine years. Even proposed Gen III designs have an estimated build time
of more than five years. Kadak's group at MIT has developed a pebble-bed design in which every part is
small and light enough to be shipped by train and truck, so the components could be mass-produced

"Our whole approach is that you don't construct a reactor, you assemble it," Kadak says. "Think about
LEGOs: You just clip them together." This could shorten construction time to as little as two years; if a
part breaks, the module containing it could be replaced quickly. Kadak envisions small 250-megawatt
reactors, with additional units added to meet demand, making the initial cost lower than that of current
1000-megawatt giants.

Starting next year, both China and South Africa intend to build full-scale prototype pebble beds based on
a design developed in Germany in the 1960s. However, the concept being considered in Idaho will
produce hotter gas. "The Chinese and South African reactors will be close to 1550 F," says Weaver, who
is coordinating the pebble-bed program in Idaho, "and we want 1650 to 1830 F. Those 100 degrees can
make a huge difference." The extra heat will run the electricity-generating turbines more efficiently,
and—crucially—meet the threshold for efficiently generating hydrogen from water.

Hydrogen is currently produced from natural gas by a process called steam reformation, which releases
74 million tons of heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year. As
a cleaneralternative, researchers are trying to figure out the best way to split the H from H
O. A team
at Idaho National Lab recently showed that electrolysis—using electricity to split the water molecule—is
nearly twice as efficient at the high temperatures made possible by a pebble-bed reactor.
How It Works: Generation IV Reactors:

Fourth-generation nuclear power plants differ radically from current reactors by replacing water coolants
and moderators, reaching higher temperatures, and gaining the potential to create hydrogen, as well as

One of the six Gen IV designs under consideration is the meltdown-proof pebble-bed reactor, which uses
grains of uranium encased in balls of graphite as fuel. Helium gas is heated as it circulates through a
vessel of these pebbles [1] and then powers a turbine [2] to generate electricity. A heat
exchanger [3] can transfer heat from the helium to adjacent facilities [4] for the production of hydrogen.
The plant relies on "passive safety": If the cooling system fails, the nuclear reaction grinds to a halt on its
Fast Breeders

Though the pebble-bed reactor is promising, other Gen IV designs have distinct advantages, too. Three
of the six under consideration are fast neutron reactors; the term refers to the high speed of the
neutrons ricocheting around the reactor core when there is no moderator to slow them down. When fast
neutrons collide with fuel particles, they can actually generate more fuel than they burn. Such breeder
reactors were developed in the late 1940s, but remained more expensive than other designs. These
reactors have more appeal today because they also can burn up the longest-lived radioactive isotopes in
their fuel, producing waste that stays dangerous for hundreds of years instead of hundreds of

These fast reactor concepts differ in the material they use to cool the reactor core. One uses gas, another
sodium, and the third, molten lead. But, so far, all three designs are still more expensive and further from
completion than the other top contenders. One solution, Weaver says, would be to carry two different
designs forward: "a thermal reactor like the pebble bed for the near term, and a fast reactor for the far

"Near term" is relative: Last year's Energy Policy Act doesn't require a final decision on construction of
the demonstration plant until 2014, a cautious timeline that frustrates the program's boosters. In the
meantime, research is pressing on in the Idaho desert and in Idaho Falls, where the Thursday night
entertainment is the monthly dinner meeting of the nation's largest chapter of the American Nuclear
Society. In the parking lot, bumper stickers read, "Split an atom, save a tree."
The Great Nuclear Debate

Now's the Time

Patrick Moore, Chair and Chief Scientist, Greenspirit Strategies Ltd.

When I helped found Greenpeace in 1971, my colleagues and I were firmly opposed to nuclear energy.
But times have changed. Nuclear energy is the only non-greenhouse gas-emitting power source that can
effectively replace fossil fuels and satisfy growing demand.

Nuclear energy is affordable. The average cost of producing nuclear energy in the United States is
less than 2 cents per kilowatt-hour, comparable to coal and hydroelectric.

Nuclear energy is safe. In 1979, a partial reactor core meltdown at Three Mile Island frightened the
country. No one noticed that Three Mile Island was a success; the containment structure prevented
radiation from escaping and there was no injury among the public or workers.

Spent nuclear fuel is not waste. Recycling spent fuel, which still contains 95 percent of its original
energy, will greatly reduce the need for treatment and disposal.

Nuclear power plants are not vulnerable to terrorist attack. The 5-ft.-thick reinforced
concrete containment vessel protects contents from the outside as well as the inside.

Nuclear weapons are no longer inextricably linked to power plants. Centrifuge technology now
allows nations to produce weapons-grade plutonium without a reactor. Iran's nuclear weapons threat, for
instance, is distinct from peaceful nuclear energy.

Nuclear reactors offer a practical path to the hydrogen economy. Excess heat from the plants,
instead of fossil fuels, can be used for electrolysis. It also can address the increasing shortage of fresh
water through desalinization.

Together with a combination of solar, wind, geothermal and hydroelectric sources, nuclear energy can
play a key role in producing safe, clean, reliable baseload electricity.

Now's the Time

Anna Aurilio, Legislative Director, U.S. Public Interest Research Group

Nuclear energy is too expensive, too dangerous and too polluting. And, despite claims from industry, it's
not necessary either for our future electricity needs or to meet the very real challenge of global warming.
Worldwide, renewable alternatives such as wind, solar and geothermal power, along with small
decentralized heat and power cogeneration plants, already produced 92 percent as much electricity as
nuclear power did in 2004—and those sources are growing almost six times faster.

In a post-9/11 world, nuclear facilities will always be tempting targets for
terrorists.Government studies have highlighted the weaknesses in our current safeguards.

Even without attackers, danger is ever present. In 2002, inspectors at the Davis-Besse nuclear
power plant in Ohio found a hole that had corroded almost all the way through a pressure vessel, leaving
less than an inch of steel preventing the release of radioactive steam.

No country in the world has solved the problem of how to dispose of high-level radioactive
waste. Even the most optimistic advanced reactor designs will continue adding to the lethal mountain of
waste already produced.

Nuclear energy is not our best bet to reduce global warming emissions. That argument only
makes sense if coal is the only other option. That's a false choice, and it ignores the rapidly developing
range of energy-efficient, clean, renewable energy sources.

For 33 years, no one has ordered or built a nuclear plant, for very good economic reasons. Now Congress
and the nuclear industry are distorting the market with new subsidies. They're pushing a technology with
serious health, safety and economic risks, and in doing so diverting research dollars away from better
Write this part
Nuclear's next generation
Inside story: A group of six new blueprints for nuclear power stations promise advances in safety and
efficiency. How do they differ from existing designs?
Dec 10th 2009 | From the print edition

DWIGHT EISENHOWER observed in his “Atoms for Peace” speech in 1953 that nuclear technology
originally developed for military purposes could also be put to peaceful uses, namely generating
electricity. His speech led to the dissemination of nuclear technology for civilian purposes and the
establishment of the first nuclear power stations. Many of these early reactors, built during the cold
war, made a virtue of the “dual use” nature of nuclear technology. Designs were favoured that could
create weapons-grade material as well as electricity.
Today those priorities have been reversed. America and Russia are taking steps to reduce their
stockpiles of nuclear weapons, and the international community is trying to prevent their acquisition
by new states. Under America's “Megatons to Megawatts” programme, weapons-grade material from
retired warheads is being broken down to provide fuel for civilian nuclear power stations. With 53
new reactors under construction around the world and dozens more planned, the main difficulties
facing nuclear scientists now are to reduce the threat of proliferation, improve efficiency and do
something about the growing stock of nuclear waste in indefinite temporary storage.
These new priorities favour new sorts of reactor. Taking the lead in the development of the next
generation of reactors is an international programme called the Generation IV International Forum
(GIF), a collaboration between the governments of America, Argentina, Brazil, Britain, Canada,
China, France, Japan, Russia, South Africa, South Korea and Switzerland, plus Euratom, the EU's
nuclear body. Established in 2001, the GIF has drawn up a shortlist of six of the most promising
designs, which range from updated versions of existing reactors to radically different approaches.
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All nuclear reactors rely on nuclear fission, a process discovered in the 1930s. When certain heavy
atoms are struck by a neutron, they absorb it, become unstable and split apart. This results in two
lighter atoms, and two or three neutrons are ejected. The process releases large amounts of energy,
much of it in the form of the kinetic energy of the fast-moving fission products. This energy is
converted to heat as the fission products slow down. If the ejected neutrons hit other atoms nearby,
those too can break apart, releasing further neutrons in a chain reaction. When enough neutrons
produce further fissions—rather than escaping, bouncing off or being absorbed by atoms that do not
split—the process becomes self-sustaining.
The technology underpinning civilian nuclear power-generation has not progressed much since the
1950s when a small number of prototype commercial reactors were first brought online. Based on
the military reactors developed for weapons programmes and naval propulsion, these “generation I”
systems pioneered the pressurised water reactor (PWR) design, which is the basis for most of the
“generation II” nuclear reactors now in operation. In a PWR ordinary water, kept at a high pressure
to prevent it from boiling, is used both to cool the reactor core and to “moderate” the nuclear reaction
by reducing the speed of the neutrons in order to maximise their ability to cause further fissions.
According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), of the 436 nuclear reactors in
operation today, 356 are either PWRs or boiling-water reactors—a simplified version of the same
The vast majority of current reactors use a “once through” fuel cycle, in which each batch of fuel
spends a single term in the reactor core, and the leftovers are then removed and placed in storage.
This spent fuel presents a storage problem, but it also offers an opportunity. According to the World
Nuclear Association, an industry body, the spent fuel recovered from a reactor still contains around
96% of the original uranium, as well as plutonium that has been formed in the core. If the nuclear
renaissance takes off at the rate that many are predicting, this inefficient use of the uranium fuel is
likely to prove unsustainable, says Bill Stacey, a professor of nuclear engineering at the Georgia
Institute of Technology.
The original series
In the near term most new reactors will continue to be PWRs. A forthcoming crop of “generation III”
and “generation III+” reactors build on the light-water design with new safety mechanisms. Some can
also run on mixed oxide (MOx) fuel, which is produced by reprocessing spent fuel to extract the
plutonium and uranium and combining them to make a new fuel. But although MOx is currently used
in around one-third of French reactors, the idea of reprocessing is controversial and has yet to gain
widespread international support. Critics say it is uneconomic and increases the risk of proliferation.
The technology underpinning civilian nuclear power-generation has not progressed much since the
The six most promising “generation IV” designs identified by the GIF from an original list of over 100
concepts depart markedly from the light-water moderated, once-through models that dominate the
existing fleet. Even those reactors that draw upon aspects of current designs add some new twists.
Start with the supercritical water-cooled reactor (SCWR). Although it uses water as the
coolant, like existing designs, the water is at a much higher temperature (above 374{degree}C) and
pressure. Under these conditions the water exists in a single, supercritical phase, rather than as
liquid or steam. This eliminates the need to transfer heat from the coolant water to steam (via a
secondary heat-exchanger) to drive a steam turbine, as is the case with current PWRs. Instead,
supercritical water from the core drives a turbine directly.
Doing away with the need for separate pumps, pressurisers and steam generators results in higher
thermal efficiency: 45% rather than the 33% of existing PWRs, according to Idaho National
Laboratory. The simplicity of the design should also make it cheaper. The GIF estimates that an
SCWR could be built at a cost of $900 per kilowatt of generating capacity—about a quarter of the
expected cost of current generation III+ reactors. Some industry observers, however, are sceptical
that these cost savings can be achieved.
Given that it builds on existing reactor designs, and also borrows from supercritical fossil-fuel boilers,
which are also an established technology, the SCWR is likely to be one of the first generation-IV
designs to be implemented. The GIF is aiming to have a demonstration version ready by 2022. But
several technical challenges remain. In particular, says William Cook of the University of New
Brunswick in Canada, “current reactor materials that do not crack corrode excessively, while
materials that do not corrode excessively crack.” New alloys will be needed that do not crack or
corrode under stress.

The second design with roots in existing technology is theVery High Temperature
Reactor (VHTR). It has a once-through uranium cycle, but instead of water it uses graphite as the
moderator and helium gas as the coolant. (Helium has the advantage that it is chemically inert and
has only a limited tendency to become radioactive when exposed to neutrons.) As its name
suggests, the VHTR is designed to run at very high temperatures, heating the coolant to around
950{degree}C, compared with 315{degree}C for a standard PWR, making it more thermally efficient.
Like the SCWR, the VHTR will require the development of new materials. Although the helium
coolant presents fewer corrosion problems than supercritical water, creating core materials and fuel
casings that can withstand the high temperatures involved is a daunting task. Nevertheless, the
VHTR has sufficiently impressed the Obama administration, which in September announced $40m
in funding for research and development of the Next Generation Nuclear Plant, a reactor based on
the VHTR design.
Unlike the SCWR and the VHTR, which build on current reactors, the other four generation-IV
designs take a completely different approach to the nuclear-fuel cycle. Three of them are “fast
neutron” reactors, which do not include a moderator to slow down free neutrons during the fission
process. With more free neutrons flying about, fast reactors can consume or “burn up” existing
nuclear waste, a characteristic that endears them to waste-reduction advocates who see them as a
means of “closing” the nuclear fuel cycle.
In keeping with the Janus-faced nature of nuclear technology, however, fast reactors can also be
used to produce or “breed” new fissile material—converting uranium-238 into the notoriously dual-
purpose plutonium, for example. Opponents of fast reactors worry about the costs and proliferation
risks. But the prospect of being able to extract useful energy from nuclear waste, and also reduce its
volume and toxicity, give fast reactors obvious appeal. The three shortlisted fast-reactor concepts—
sodium-cooled, gas-cooled and lead-cooled—are differentiated primarily by their use of coolant.
Each has its own pros and cons.
The most successful of the three designs to date has been the sodium-cooled fast
reactor (SFR), which has racked up the highest number of reactor-years of operation in prototype
form. One of the merits of the SFR is that “we really can build one,” says Robert Hill of America's
Argonne National Laboratories. He points to the Russian BN600, a reactor that has been running
since the 1980s. Sodium is favoured as a coolant because of its good heat-transfer properties, its
ability to operate at lower pressures than other coolants and its relative “transparency” to fast
neutrons, which means it does not interfere in the fission process, says Dr Hill. According to the
IAEA, Russia, South Korea and India are all currently operating versions of the SFR, and China is
due to bring a prototype online in mid-2010.
The gas-cooled fast reactor (GFR), in contrast, has yet to be demonstrated on a commercial
scale. But many see it as a better bet than the SFR due to its technical similarity to generation III
gas-cooled designs. Like the VHTR, the GFR uses pressurised helium both to cool the reactor core
and drive a turbine, yielding higher thermal efficiency than systems with a secondary heat-transfer
loop. As with a VHTR, the other advantages of a gas coolant, says Tom Wei, a senior engineer at
Argonne, include its non-corrosive characteristics and its capacity for use at high temperatures (the
GFR would operate at around 850{degree}C). But, like the VHTR, the GFR will require new
materials to enable its cladding and fuel assemblies to withstand such high temperatures.
The third fast-reactor concept uses molten lead as the coolant, an approach historically favoured by
the Soviet military, which used early lead-bismuth cooled fast reactors to power its submarines.
Since the late 1990s there has been renewed interest in the lead-cooled fast reactor (LFR),
particularly in Europe. A distinctive advantage of the LFR concept is its potential to be adapted to
smaller “battery” designs, which can be manufactured as self-contained systems with a “lifetime
core”. Such reactors could provide a way to extend civilian nuclear power to new countries without
giving them access to the sensitive parts of the nuclear-fuel cycle.
Although a commercial fleet of fast reactors would be attractive from a waste-management
perspective, it presents its own set of proliferation-related problems. According to Charles Ferguson,
a nuclear expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, a think-tank, the commercial adoption of fast
reactors would require “near real-time monitoring capabilities” via secure video links to ensure that
the reactors were not being used to make weapons. Getting countries to agree to such intrusive
measures, he says, would be very difficult.
In the belly of the beastGetty Images
The sixth shortlisted design, themolten salt reactor (MSR), works by dissolving nuclear fuel in a
fluoride solution, which acts as both the fuel and the coolant in the reactor core. The molten salt,
which has good heat-transfer properties and can be heated to temperatures above 1,000{degree}C
without boiling, is moderated using graphite. The circulation of the fuel in this way eliminates the
need for fuel fabrication and allows for continuous online reprocessing. It also makes the design well
suited to the use of existing fissile material, which can be easily blended into the fuel mixture. And
like fast reactors, the MSR can be designed to burn up many of the longer-lived byproducts of the
fission process, resulting in nuclear waste that is much less radioactive than that produced by the
once-through cycle.
One form of MSR, the liquid fluoride thorium reactor (LFTR), has garnered particular enthusiasm
among those who regard thorium as an attractive replacement for uranium and plutonium in the fuel
cycle. (Thorium is both cheaper and more abundant than uranium.) According to Kirk Sorensen, an
engineer at NASA who also runs a blog on the merits of the thorium cycle, natural thorium provides
at least 250 times more energy per unit than natural uranium. However, unlike fissile uranium,
natural thorium must be “seeded” with external neutrons in order to get it to fission. Another obstacle
for the MSR is finding materials capable of withstanding hot, corrosive, radioactive salt.
Flicking the switch
Which of these designs will prevail in the coming decades? After all, not all the generation-IV reactor
concepts are likely to make it to commercialisation. Ideally, the strongest approaches will win out
through “natural selection”, says Thierry Dujardin at the OECD's Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) in
Paris. But with each of the designs closely connected to different national research programmes—
and international variations within each of the categories—governments are unsurprisingly reluctant
to see their particular projects sidelined.
Harold McFarlane at the Idaho National Laboratory reckons the VHTR and SFR are almost ready to
move out of the research phase and into the design stage. Others share this view: the British
government has identified the VHTR, GFR, and SFR as high-priority designs, and Japan, France
and America agreed last year to work together on SFR prototypes.
Dr Ferguson thinks the prospects of the entire generation-IV programme are contingent on the level
of investment allocated to nearer-term projects. “Do we commit to generation III or do we leapfrog to
generation IV?” he asks. Two important considerations for answering his question are regulatory
compliance and economic viability. With regard to the former, the NEA's Multinational Design
Evaluation Programme is considering an international licensing scheme to standardise safety
requirements for the new reactors. As for the latter, the success of generation IV reactors is likely to
hinge on large amounts of government support.
In the near term this support should take the form of increased research-and-development funding,
says Dr Stacey of Georgia Tech. In the longer term, governments have an important role to play in
the provision of loan guarantees, which are vital for overcoming engineering and “first of a kind”
risks, says Joe Turnage at Unistar, a commercial nuclear joint-venture between Constellation
Energy, an American utility, and EDF, a French one. But whatever the next generation of nuclear
power-stations looks like, it is clear that the research being done around the world to develop such a
variety of new reactors, rather than new nuclear weapons, has fulfilled Eisenhower's wish, back in
1953, that “the miraculous inventiveness of man shall not be dedicated to his death, but consecrated
to his life.