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A breeder reactor is a nuclear reactor that generates more fissile material than it consumes. Breeders were at first found attractive because they made more complete use of uranium fuel than light water reactors , but interest declined after the s as more uranium reserves were found, [2] and new methods of uranium enrichment reduced fuel costs. With seawater uranium extraction currently too expensive to be economical , there is enough fuel for breeder reactors to satisfy our energy needs for 5 billion years at ‘s total energy consumption rate, thus making nuclear energy effectively a renewable energy.

Nuclear waste became a greater concern by the s. In broad terms, spent nuclear fuel has two main components. The first consists of fission products , the leftover fragments of fuel atoms after they have been split to release energy.

Fission products come in dozens of elements and hundreds of isotopes, all of them lighter than uranium. The second main component of spent fuel is transuranics atoms heavier than uranium , which are generated from uranium or heavier atoms in the fuel when they absorb neutrons but do not undergo fission. All transuranic isotopes fall within the actinide series on the periodic table , and so they are frequently referred to as the actinides. The physical behavior of the fission products is markedly different from that of the transuranics.

In particular, fission products do not themselves undergo fission, and therefore cannot be used for nuclear weapons. Furthermore, only seven long-lived fission product isotopes have half-lives longer than a hundred years, which makes their geological storage or disposal less problematic than for transuranic materials. With increased concerns about nuclear waste, breeding fuel cycles came under renewed interest as they can reduce actinide wastes, particularly plutonium and minor actinides.

After spent nuclear fuel is removed from a light water reactor, it undergoes a complex decay profile as each nuclide decays at a different rate. Due to a physical oddity referenced above, there is a large gap in the decay half-lives of fission products compared to transuranic isotopes. If the transuranics are left in the spent fuel, after 1, to , years, the slow decay of these transuranics would generate most of the radioactivity in that spent fuel. Thus, removing the transuranics from the waste eliminates much of the long-term radioactivity of spent nuclear fuel.

Today’s commercial light water reactors do breed some new fissile material, mostly in the form of plutonium. Because commercial reactors were never designed as breeders, they do not convert enough uranium into plutonium to replace the uranium consumed. Nonetheless, at least one-third of the power produced by commercial nuclear reactors comes from fission of plutonium generated within the fuel.

One measure of a reactor’s performance is the “conversion ratio,” defined as the ratio of new fissile atoms produced to fissile atoms consumed. All proposed nuclear reactors except specially designed and operated actinide burners [16] experience some degree of conversion. As long as there is any amount of a fertile material within the neutron flux of the reactor, some new fissile material is always created. When the conversion ratio is greater than 1, it is often called the “breeding ratio.

For example, commonly used light water reactors have a conversion ratio of approximately 0. Pressurized heavy water reactors PHWR running on natural uranium have a conversion ratio of 0. The doubling time is the amount of time it would take for a breeder reactor to produce enough new fissile material to replace the original fuel and additionally produce an equivalent amount of fuel for another nuclear reactor.

This was considered an important measure of breeder performance in early years, when uranium was thought to be scarce. However, since uranium is more abundant than thought in the early days of nuclear reactor development, and given the amount of plutonium available in spent reactor fuel, doubling time has become a less-important metric in modern breeder-reactor design. Burnup is an important factor in determining the types and abundances of isotopes produced by a fission reactor.

Breeder reactors, by design, have extremely high burnup compared to a conventional reactor, as breeder reactors produce much more of their waste in the form of fission products, while most or all of the actinides are meant to be fissioned and destroyed.

In the past, breeder-reactor development focused on reactors with low breeding ratios, from 1. A ‘breeder’ is simply a reactor designed for very high neutron economy with an associated conversion rate higher than 1.

In principle, almost any reactor design could be tweaked to become a breeder. An example of this process is the evolution of the Light Water Reactor, a very heavily moderated thermal design, into the Super Fast Reactor [26] concept, using light water in an extremely low-density supercritical form to increase the neutron economy high enough to allow breeding. Aside from water cooled, there are many other types of breeder reactor currently envisioned as possible.

These include molten-salt cooled , gas cooled , and liquid-metal cooled designs in many variations. Almost any of these basic design types may be fueled by uranium, plutonium, many minor actinides, or thorium, and they may be designed for many different goals, such as creating more fissile fuel, long-term steady-state operation, or active burning of nuclear wastes.

Extant reactor designs are sometimes divided into two broad categories based upon their neutron spectrum, which generally separates those designed to use primarily uranium and transuranics from those designed to use thorium and avoid transuranics.

These designs are:. Fission of the nuclear fuel in any reactor produces neutron-absorbing fission products. Because of this unavoidable physical process, it is necessary to reprocess the fertile material from a breeder reactor to remove those neutron poisons.

This step is required to fully utilize the ability to breed as much or more fuel than is consumed. All reprocessing can present a proliferation concern, since it extracts weapons-usable material from spent fuel. Early proposals for the breeder-reactor fuel cycle posed an even greater proliferation concern because they would use PUREX to separate plutonium in a highly attractive isotopic form for use in nuclear weapons. Several countries are developing reprocessing methods that do not separate the plutonium from the other actinides.

For instance, the non-water-based pyrometallurgical electrowinning process, when used to reprocess fuel from an integral fast reactor , leaves large amounts of radioactive actinides in the reactor fuel. All these systems have modestly better proliferation resistance than PUREX, though their adoption rate is low.

In the thorium cycle, thorium breeds by converting first to protactinium, which then decays to uranium If the protactinium remains in the reactor, small amounts of uranium are also produced, which has the strong gamma emitter thallium in its decay chain. Similar to uranium-fueled designs, the longer the fuel and fertile material remain in the reactor, the more of these undesirable elements build up. In the envisioned commercial thorium reactors , high levels of uranium would be allowed to accumulate, leading to extremely high gamma-radiation doses from any uranium derived from thorium.

These gamma rays complicate the safe handling of a weapon and the design of its electronics; this explains why uranium has never been pursued for weapons beyond proof-of-concept demonstrations. While the thorium cycle may be proliferation-resistant with regard to uranium extraction from fuel because of the presence of uranium , it poses a proliferation risk from an alternate route of uranium extraction, which involves chemically extracting protactinium and allowing it to decay to pure uranium outside of the reactor.

No fission products have a half-life in the range of a— ka Breeding fuel cycles attracted renewed interest because of their potential to reduce actinide wastes, particularly plutonium and minor actinides.

The volume of waste they generate would be reduced by a factor of about as well. While there is a huge reduction in the volume of waste from a breeder reactor, the activity of the waste is about the same as that produced by a light-water reactor. In addition, the waste from a breeder reactor has a different decay behavior, because it is made up of different materials.

Breeder reactor waste is mostly fission products, while light-water reactor waste has a large quantity of transuranics. After spent nuclear fuel has been removed from a light-water reactor for longer than , years, these transuranics would be the main source of radioactivity. Eliminating them would eliminate much of the long-term radioactivity from the spent fuel. In principle, breeder fuel cycles can recycle and consume all actinides, [4] leaving only fission products.

As the graphic in this section indicates, fission products have a peculiar ‘gap’ in their aggregate half-lives, such that no fission products have a half-life between 91 years and two hundred thousand years. As a result of this physical oddity, after several hundred years in storage, the activity of the radioactive waste from a Fast Breeder Reactor would quickly drop to the low level of the long-lived fission products.

However, to obtain this benefit requires the highly efficient separation of transuranics from spent fuel. If the fuel reprocessing methods used leave a large fraction of the transuranics in the final waste stream, this advantage would be greatly reduced. A reactor whose main purpose is to destroy actinides, rather than increasing fissile fuel-stocks, is sometimes known as a burner reactor.

Both breeding and burning depend on good neutron economy, and many designs can do either. Breeding designs surround the core by a breeding blanket of fertile material.

Waste burners surround the core with non-fertile wastes to be destroyed. Some designs add neutron reflectors or absorbers. All current fast neutron reactor designs use liquid metal as the primary coolant, to transfer heat from the core to steam used to power the electricity generating turbines. FBRs have been built cooled by liquid metals other than sodium—some early FBRs used mercury , other experimental reactors have used a sodium – potassium alloy called NaK.

Both have the advantage that they are liquids at room temperature, which is convenient for experimental rigs but less important for pilot or full-scale power stations. Lead and lead-bismuth alloy have also been used. Another fuel option is metal alloys , typically a blend of uranium, plutonium, and zirconium used because it is “transparent” to neutrons.

Enriched uranium can also be used on its own. Many designs surround the core in a blanket of tubes that contain non-fissile uranium, which, by capturing fast neutrons from the reaction in the core, converts to fissile plutonium as is some of the uranium in the core , which is then reprocessed and used as nuclear fuel.

Other FBR designs rely on the geometry of the fuel itself which also contains uranium , arranged to attain sufficient fast neutron capture. For this reason ordinary liquid water , being a moderator and neutron absorber , is an undesirable primary coolant for fast reactors.

Because large amounts of water in the core are required to cool the reactor, the yield of neutrons and therefore breeding of Pu are strongly affected. Theoretical work has been done on reduced moderation water reactors , which may have a sufficiently fast spectrum to provide a breeding ratio slightly over 1.

This would likely result in an unacceptable power derating and high costs in a liquid-water-cooled reactor, but the supercritical water coolant of the supercritical water reactor SCWR has sufficient heat capacity to allow adequate cooling with less water, making a fast-spectrum water-cooled reactor a practical possibility. The type of coolants, temperatures and fast neutron spectrum puts the fuel cladding material normally austenitic stainless or ferritic-martensitic steels under extreme conditions.

The understanding of the radiation damage, coolant interactions, stresses and temperatures are necessary for the safe operation of any reactor core. Both are Russian sodium-cooled reactors. One design of fast neutron reactor, specifically conceived to address the waste disposal and plutonium issues, was the integral fast reactor IFR, also known as an integral fast breeder reactor, although the original reactor was designed to not breed a net surplus of fissile material.

To solve the waste disposal problem, the IFR had an on-site electrowinning fuel-reprocessing unit that recycled the uranium and all the transuranics not just plutonium via electroplating , leaving just short half-life fission products in the waste. Some of these fission products could later be separated for industrial or medical uses and the rest sent to a waste repository.

The IFR pyroprocessing system uses molten cadmium cathodes and electrorefiners to reprocess metallic fuel directly on-site at the reactor. Breeder reactors incorporating such technology would most likely be designed with breeding ratios very close to 1. A quantity of natural uranium metal equivalent to a block about the size of a milk crate delivered once per month would be all the fuel such a 1 gigawatt reactor would need. Another proposed fast reactor is a fast molten salt reactor , in which the molten salt’s moderating properties are insignificant.

This is typically achieved by replacing the light metal fluorides e. LiF, BeF 2 in the salt carrier with heavier metal chlorides e. As of , the technology is not economically competitive to thermal reactor technology, but India , Japan, China, South Korea and Russia are all committing substantial research funds to further development of fast breeder reactors, anticipating that rising uranium prices will change this in the long term. Germany, in contrast, abandoned the technology due to safety concerns.

India is also developing FBR technology using both uranium and thorium feedstocks.


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