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"Fast breeder" reactors destined to fail.

Hopes that the "fast breeder"--a plutonium-fueled nuclear reactor designed to produce more fuel than it consumes--might serve as a major part of the long-term nuclear waste disposal solution are not merited by the dismal track record to date of such sodium-cooled reactors in India, France, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the U.S., insists a study from the International Panel on Fissile Materials, Princeton, N.J.

The report concludes: "The problems with fast breeder reactors make it hard to dispute Admiral Hyman Rickover's summation in 1956, based on his experience with a sodium-cooled reactor developed to power an early U.S. nuclear submarine, that such reactors are expensive to build, complex to operate, susceptible to prolonged shutdown as a result of even minor malfunctions, and difficult and time-consuming to repair."


Plagued by high costs, often multiyear downtime for repairs (including a 15-year reactor restart delay in Japan), multiple safety problems (among them often catastrophic sodium fires triggered simply by contact with oxygen), and unresolved proliferation risks, fast breeder reactors already have been the focus of more than $50,000,000,000 in development spending, including over $10,000,000,000 each by the U.S., Japan, and Russia. As the IPFM report notes: "Yet none of these efforts has produced a reactor that is anywhere near economically competitive with light-water reactors. After six decades and the expenditure of the equivalent of tens of billions of dollars, the promise of breeder reactors remains largely unfulfilled and efforts to commercialize them have been steadily cut back in most countries."

With a new Obama Administration panel focusing on reprocessing and other waste issues, interest in some quarters has shifted back to fast reactors as a possible means by which to bypass concerns about the long-range storage of nuclear waste, IPFM cautions. "The breeder reactor dream is not dead, but it has receded far into the future," suggests Frank yon Hippel, co-chair of IPFM and professor of public and international affairs at Princeton University.

"In the 1970s, breeder advocates were predicting that the world would have thousands of breeder reactors operating by now. Today, they are predicting commercialization by approximately 2050. In the meantime, the world has to deal with the legacy of the dream: approximately 250 tons of separated weapon-usable plutonium and ongoing--although, in most cases, struggling--reprocessing programs in France, India, Japan, Russia, and the United Kingdom."

Concludes Thomas B. Cochran, nuclear physicist and senior scientist in the Nuclear Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council: "Despite the fact that fast breeder development began in 1944, now, some 66 years later, of the 438 operational nuclear power reactors worldwide, only one of these, the BN-600 in Russia, is a commercial-size fast reactor and it hardly qualifies as a successful breeder. The Soviet Union never closed the full cycle and Russia has yet to fuel BN-600 with plutonium."

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Title Annotation:Nuclear Energy
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2010
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