Last week at a global conference sponsored by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), India and Russia discussed large demonstration plants they will operate in 2014 and the plan for future deployments. China is currently making a huge R&D push so that by 2030, fast reactors are one-fifth of the country’s nuclear capacity.
Fast-neutron reactors are a viable option for breaking down nuclear waste because they need only 2% of the space typically required by a conventional reactor. So, instead of nuclear waste remaining in storage for 300,000 years under conventional methods, fast reactors would decrease the time to 300 years. This will ultimately reduce some of the need for geological repositories.
Experts at the IAEA conference did note that dangers accompany fast reactors. These dangers were on the minds of nearly all attendees since the conference wrapped up a few days before the two-year anniversary of the Fukushima accident in Japan.
Fast reactors have molten sodium that cools their cores. It explodes on contact with water and oxygen. The sodium-cooled fast reactor, or SFR, exhibits what physicists call positive reactivity. Unlike conventional reactors, which experience their fastest possible chain reaction when operating at full power, the SFR’s chain reaction is capable of further acceleration than its equipment is designed to handle. This puts such reactors at greater risk of a runaway reaction that could cause a core meltdown or breach its steel containment vessel.
To make fast reactors a viable option, fuel safety and prevention of catastrophic accidents must be top priorities.