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TheBreederReactor

Conventionalnuclearreactorsuseuranium235astheirfuel.However,uranium235makesupless
than1%ofnaturallyoccurringuranium.Mosturaniumoccursastheisotopeuranium238.Theonly
problemisthaturanium238can'tbeusedinconventionalnuclearreactors.Itdoesn'tundergofission
likeuranium235.However,ifuranium238couldbeusedasanuclearfuel,therewouldbesufficient
uraniumtorunnuclearreactorsforhundredsofyears.
TheBreederReactorwasdevelopedtouseuranium238.Here'showitworks.Areactorisbuiltwitha
coreoffissionableplutonium,Pu239.Theplutonium239coreissurroundedbyalayerofuranium
238.Astheplutonium239undergoesspontaneousfission,itreleasesneutrons.Theseneutrons
converturanium238toplutonium239.Inotherwords,thisreactorbreedsfuel(Pu239)asit
operates.Afteralltheuranium238hasbeenchangedtoplutonium239,thereactorisrefueled.
However,therearesomemajorproblemswiththebreederreactor.Tobeginwith,plutonium239is
extremelytoxic.Ifanindividualinhalesasmallamount,heorshewillcontractlungcancer.Also,the
halflifeofthematerialisextremelylong,about24,000years.Thiscouldcreateanalmostimpossible
disposalproblemiflargeamountsofthismaterialaregenerated.
Also,becauseofthenatureofthereactorcore,watercan'tbeusedasacoolant.Instead,liquidsodium
mustbeused.Intheeventofanaccidentacatastrophecoulddevelopbecausesodiumreactsviolently
withwaterandair.
Althoughthebreederreactorcouldsolvetheuraniumfuelproblem,therearestillanumberofother
problemsthatwillhavetobeworkedout.

TwoTypesofTraditionalBreederReactors
TheFastBreederReactororFBR.Thesuperiorneutroneconomyofafastneutronreactor
makesitpossibletobuildareactorthat,afteritsinitialfuelchargeofplutonium,requiresonly
natural(orevendepleted)uraniumfeedstockasinputtoitsfuelcycle.Thisfuelcyclehasbeen
termedtheplutoniumeconomy.
TheThermalBreederReactor.TheexcellentneutroncapturecharacteristicsoffissileUranium
233makeitpossibletobuildaheavywatermoderatedreactorthat,afteritsinitialfuelchargeof
enricheduranium,plutoniumorMOX,requiresonlythoriumasinputtoitsfuelcycle.
Thorium232producesUranium233afterneutroncaptureandbetadecay.
Inadditiontothis,thereissomeinterestinsocalled"reducedmoderationreactors"whicharederived
fromconventionalreactorsanduseconventionalfuelsandcoolants,butaredesignedtobereasonably
efficientasbreeders.Suchdesignstypicallyachievebreedingratiosof0.7to1.01orevenhigher.

FastBreederReactors
ABreederReactorisanuclearreactorthat"breeds"fuel.ABreederconsumesfissileandfertile
materialatthesametimeasitcreatesnewfissilematerial.Productionoffissilematerialinareactor
occursbyneutronirradiationoffertilematerial,particularlyUranium238andThorium232.Ina
breederreactor,thesematerialsaredeliberatelyprovided,eitherinthefuelorinaBreederBlanket
surroundingthecore,ormostcommonlyinboth.Productionoffissilematerialtakesplacetosome
extentinthefuelofallcurrentcommercialnuclearpowerreactors.Towardstheendofitslife,a
uraniumPWRfuelelementisproducingmorepowerfromthefissioningofplutoniumthanfromthe
remaininguranium235.Historically,inordertobecalledabreeder,areactormustbespecifically

designedtocreatemorefissilematerialthanitconsumes.
Underappropriateoperatingconditions,theneutronsgivenoffbyfissionreactionscan"breed"more
fuelfromotherwisenonfissionableisotopes.Themostcommonbreedingreactionisthatof
plutonium239fromnonfissionableuranium238.Theterm"fastbreeder"referstothetypesof
configurationswhichcanactuallyproducemorefissionablefuelthantheyuse,suchastheLMFBR.
Thisscenarioispossiblebecausethenonfissionableuranium238is140timesmoreabundantthan
thefissionableU235andcanbeefficientlyconvertedintoPu239bytheneutronsfromafission
chainreaction.
FrancehasmadethelargestimplementationofbreederreactorswithitslargeSuperPhenixreactor
andanintermediatescalereactor(BN600)ontheCaspianSeaforelectricpoweranddesalinization.
SeveralprototypeFBRshavebeenbuilt,ranginginelectricaloutputfromafewlightbulbs(EBRI,
1951)toover1000MWe.Asof2006,thetechnologyisnoteconomicallycompetitivetothermal
reactortechnologybutJapan,China,Korea,andRussiaareallcommittingsubstantialresearchfunds
tofurtherdevelopmentbasedonexistingLMFBRdesigns,anticipatingthatrisinguraniumpriceswill
changethisinthelongterm.Lookingfurtherahead,threeoftheproposedgenerationIVreactortypes
areFBRs:
TheGasCooledFastReactor(GFR)cooledbyhelium.
TheSodiumCooledFastReactor(SFR)basedontheexistingLMFBRandIntegralFast
Reactordesigns.
TheLeadCooledFastReactor(LFR)basedonSovietnavalpropulsionunits.
Aswellastheirthermalbreederprogram,IndiaisalsodevelopingFBRtechnology,usingboth
uraniumandthoriumfeedstocks.

BreedingPlutonium239
Fissionableplutonium239canbeproducedfromnonfissionableuranium238bythereaction
illustrated.

Thebombardmentofuranium238withneutronstriggerstwosuccessivebetadecayswiththe
productionofplutonium.Theamountofplutoniumproduceddependsonthebreedingratio.

PlutoniumBreedingRatio
Inthebreedingofplutoniumfuelinbreederreactors,animportantconceptisthe"BreedingRatio",

theamountoffissileplutonium239producedcomparedtotheamountoffissionablefuel(likeU235)
usedtoproducedit.Intheliquidmetal,fastbreederreactor(LMFBR),thetargetbreedingratiois1.4
buttheresultsachievedhavebeenabout1.2.Thisisbasedon2.4neutronsproducedperU235
fission,withoneneutronusedtosustainthereaction.
Thetimerequiredforabreederreactortoproduceenoughmaterialtofuelasecondreactoriscalled
itsdoublingtime,andpresentdesignplanstargetabouttenyearsasadoublingtime.Areactorcould
usetheheatofthereactiontoproduceenergyfor10years,andattheendofthattimehaveenough
fueltofuelanotherreactorfor10years.
Historically,attentionhasfocuseduponreactorswithhighbreedingratios,sothattheyproducemore
fissilematerialthantheyconsume.Suchdesignsrangefromabreedingratioof1.01fortheShipping
portReactorrunningonthoriumfuelandcooledbyconventionallightwatertotheRussianBN350
liquidmetalcooledreactorwithabreedingratioofover1.2.Theoreticalmodelsofgascooled
breedersshowbreedingratiosofupto1.8arepossibleasanupperlimit.
Innormaloperation,mostlargecommercialreactorsexperiencesomedegreeoffuelbreeding.Itis
customarytoreferonlytomachinesoptimizedforthistraitastruebreeders,butindustrytrendsare
pushingbreedingratiossteadilyhigher,thusblurringthedistinction.

LiquidMetal,FastBreederReactor
Theplutonium239breederreactoriscommonlycalledafastbreederreactor,andthecoolingandheat
transferisdonebyaliquidmetal.Themetalswhichcanaccomplishthisaresodiumandlithium,with
sodiumbeingthemostabundantandmostcommonlyused.Theconstructionofthefastbreeder
requiresahigherenrichmentofU235thanalightwaterreactor,typically15to30%.Thereactorfuel
issurroundedbya"blanket"ofnonfissionableU238.Nomoderatorisusedinthebreederreactor
sincefastneutronsaremoreefficientintransmutingU238toPu239.AtthisconcentrationofU235,
thecrosssectionforfissionwithfastneutronsissufficienttosustainthechainreaction.Usingwater
ascoolantwouldslowdowntheneutrons,buttheuseofliquidsodiumavoidsthatmoderationand
providesaveryefficientheattransfermedium.

LiquidSodiumCoolant
LiquidsodiumisusedasthecoolantandheattransfermediumintheLMFBRreactor.That
immediatelyraisedthequestionofsafetysincesodiummetalisanextremelyreactivechemicaland
burnsoncontactwithairorwater(sometimesexplosivelyoncontactwithwater).Itistruethatthe
liquidsodiummustbeprotectedfromcontactwithairorwateratalltimes,keptinasealedsystem.
However,ithasbeenfoundthatthesafetyissuesarenotsignificantlygreaterthanthosewithhigh
pressurewaterandsteaminthelightwaterreactors.
Sodiumisasolidatroomtemperaturebutliquefiesat98C.Ithasawideworkingtemperaturesince
itdoesnotboiluntil892C.Thatbracketstherangeofoperatingtemperaturesforthereactorsothatit
doesnotneedtobepressurizedasdoesawatersteamcoolantsystem.Ithasalargespecificheatso
thatitisanefficientheattransferfluid.

TheSuperPhenix
TheSuperPhenixwasthefirstlargescalebreederreactor.ItwasputintoserviceinFrancein1984.
Thereactorcoreconsistsofthousandsofstainlesssteeltubescontainingamixtureofuraniumand

plutoniumoxides,about1520%fissionableplutonium239.Surroundingthecoreisaregioncalled
thebreederblanketconsistingoftubesfilledonlywithuraniumoxide.Theentireassemblyisabout
3x5metersandissupportedinareactorvesselinmoltensodium.Theenergyfromthenuclearfission
heatsthesodiumtoabout500Candittransfersthatenergytoasecondsodiumloopwhichinturn
heatswatertoproducesteamforelectricityproduction.
Suchareactorcanproduceabout20%morefuelthanitconsumesbythebreedingreaction.Enough
excessfuelisproducedoverabout20yearstofuelanothersuchreactor.Optimumbreedingallows
about75%oftheenergyofthenaturaluraniumtobeusedcomparedto1%inthestandardlightwater
reactor.

BreedingVersusBurnup
AllcommercialLightWaterReactorsbreedfuel,theyjusthavebreedingratiosthatareverylow
comparedtomachinestraditionallyconsidered"breeders."Inrecentyears,thecommercialpower
industryhasbeenemphasizinghighburnupfuels,whicharetypicallyenrichedtohigherpercentages
ofU235thanstandardreactorfuelssothattheylastlongerinthereactorcore.Asburnupincreases,a
higherpercentageofthetotalpowerproducedinareactorisduetothefuelbredinsidethereactor.
Ataburnupof30Gigawattdays/tonheavymetal,aboutthirtypercentofthetotalenergyreleased
comesfrombredplutonium.At40Gigawattdays/tonheavymetal,thatpercentageincreasestoabout
fortypercent.Thiscorrespondstoabreedingratioforthesereactorsofabout0.4to0.5.Namely,
abouthalfofthefissilefuelinthesereactorsisbredthere.
ThisisofinterestlargelyduetothefactthatnextgenerationreactorssuchastheEuropean
PressurizedReactor,AP1000andPebbleBedReactoraredesignedtoachieveveryhighburnup.This
directlytranslatestohigherbreedingratios.Currentcommercialpowerreactorshaveachieved
breedingratiosofroughly0.55,andnextgenerationdesignsliketheAP1000andEPRshouldhave
breedingratiosof0.7to0.8,meaningthattheyproduce70to80percentasmuchfuelasthey
consume,improvingtheirfueleconomybyroughly15percentcomparedtocurrenthighburnup
reactors.
Breedingoffissilefuelisacommonfeatureinreactors,butincommercialreactorsnotoptimizedfor
thisfeatureitisreferredtoas"EnhancedBurnup".Uptoathirdofallelectricityproducedinour
currentreactorfleetcomesfrombredfuel,andtheindustryisworkingsteadilytoincreasethat
percentageastimegoeson.

Reprocessing
Useofabreederreactorassumesnuclearreprocessingofthebreederblanketatleast,withoutwhich
theconceptismeaningless.Inpractice,allproposedbreederreactorprogramsinvolvereprocessingof
thefuelelementsaswell.Thisisimportantduetonuclearweaponsproliferationconcerns,asany
nationconductingreprocessingusingthetraditionalaqueousbasedPUREXfamilyofreprocessing
techniquescouldpotentiallydivertplutoniumtowardsweaponsbuilding.Inpractice,commercial
plutoniumfromreactorswithsignificantburnupwouldrequiresophisticatedweapondesigns,butthe
possibilitymustbeconsidered.Toaddressthisconcern,modifiedaqueousreprocessingsystemsare
proposedwhichaddextrareagentswhichforceminoractinide"impurities"suchascuriumand
neptuniumtocomminglewiththeplutonium.Suchimpuritiesmatterlittleinafastspectrumreactor,
butmakeweaponizingtheplutoniumextraordinarilydifficult,suchthatevenverysophisticated
weapondesignsarelikelytofailtofireproperly.SuchsystemsastheTRUEXandSANEXaremeant
toaddressthis.
EvenmorecomprehensivearesuchsystemsastheIFRpyroprocessingsystem,whichusespoolsof
moltencadmiumandelectrorefinerstoreprocessmetallicfueldirectlyonsiteatthereactor.Such

systemsnotonlycomminglealltheminoractinideswithbothuraniumandplutonium,theyare
compactandselfcontained,sothatnoplutoniumcontainingmaterialeverneedstobetransported
awayfromthesiteofthebreederreactor.Breederreactorsincorporatingsuchtechnologywouldmost
likelybedesignedwithbreedingratiosverycloseto1.00,sothatafteraninitialloadingofenriched
uraniumand/orplutoniumfuel,thereactorwouldthenberefueledonlywithsmalldeliveriesof
naturaluraniummetal.Ablockofnaturaluraniummetalaboutthesizeofamilkcratedeliveredonce
permonthwouldbeallthefuelsucha1gigawattreactorwouldneed.Suchselfcontainedbreeders
arecurrentlyenvisionedasthefinalselfcontainedandselfsupportingultimategoalofnuclearreactor
designers.

ThermalBreederReactor
TheAdvancedHeavyWaterReactorisoneofthefewproposedlargescaleusesofthorium.Asof
3006onlyIndiaisdevelopingthistechnology.Indianinterestismotivatedbytheirsubstantialthorium
reservesalmostathirdoftheworld'sthoriumreservesareinIndia,whichincontrasthaslessthan1%
oftheworld'suranium.Theirstatedintentionistousebothfastandthermalbreederreactorstosupply
boththeirownfuelandasurplusfornonbreedingthermalpowerreactors.Totalworldwideresources
ofthoriumareroughlythreetimesthoseofuranium,sointheextremelongtermthistechnologymay
becomeofmoregeneralinterest.
TheLiquidFluorideReactorwasalsodevelopedasathermalbreeder.Liquidfluoridereactorshave
manyattractivefeatures,suchasdeepinherentsafety(duetotheirstrongnegativetemperature
coefficientofreactivityandtheirabilitytodraintheirliquidfuelintoapassivelycooledandnon
criticalconfiguration)andeaseofoperation.Theyareparticularlyattractiveasthermalbreeders
becausetheycanisolateprotactinium233(theintermediatebreedingproductofthorium)from
neutronfluxandallowittodecaytouranium233,whichcanthenbereturnedtothereactor.Typical
solidfueledreactorsarenotcapableofaccomplishingthisstepandthusU234isformeduponfurther
neutronirradiation.
Copyright1997JamesR.Fromm