China is looking seriously at a range of nuclear options. From the commercial side of things, the country is building over 25 light water reactors, including four of the new US-designed AP1000. The Chinese are also pursuing a range of advanced reactor programmes, including gas-cooled pebble-bed modular reactors (the 210 MWe HTR-PM), a thorium-focused research initiative based on the molten-salt reactor, and an ambitious fast spectrum reactor research, demonstration and deployment (RD&D) plan. It is the latter that I wish to discuss here.
Some of you would already know that the Chinese are in the late stages of planning the construction of two Russian-designed BN-800 sodium-cooled fast reactors, to be located at a site on China’s east coast. These are scaled-up (880 MWe) versions of the BN-600, which has run successfully in Russia for a number of decades. There is also the Chinese Experimental Fast Reactor (CEFR), a 25 MWe demonstration unit near Beijing.
Before I get to the main point of this post, it is worth reproducing this WNA summary of the current Chinese builds:
In China, R&D on fast neutron reactors started in 1964. A 65 MWt fast neutron reactor – the Chinese Experimental Fast Reactor (CEFR) – was designed by 2003 and built near Beijing by Russia’s OKBM Afrikantov in collaboration with OKB Gidropress, NIKIET and Kurchatov Institute. It achieved first criticality in July 2010, can generate 20 MWe and was grid connected in July 2011 at 40% of power, to ramp up to 20 MWe by December. Core height is 45 cm, and it has 150 kg Pu (98 kg Pu-239). Temperature reactivity and power reactivity are both negative.
A 1000 MWe Chinese prototype fast reactor (CDFR) based on CEFR is envisaged with construction start in 2017 and commissioning as the next step in CIAE’s program. This will be a 3-loop 2500 MWt pool-type, use MOX fuel with average 66 GWd/t burn-up, run at 544°C, have breeding ratio 1.2, with 316 core fuel assemblies and 255 blanket ones, and a 40-year life. This is CIAE’s “project one” CDFR. It will have active and passive shutdown systems and passive decay heat removal. This may be developed into a CCFR of about the same size by 2030, using MOX + actinide or metal + actinide fuel. MOX is seen only as an interim fuel, the target arrangement is metal fuel in closed cycle.
However, in October 2009 an agreement was signed with Russia’s Atomstroyexport to start pre-project and design works for a commercial nuclear power plant with two BN-800 reactors in China, referred to by CIAE as ‘project 2’ Chinese Demonstration Fast Reactors (CDFR) – in China, with construction to start in 2013 and commissioning 2018-19. These would be similar to the OKBM Afrikantov design being built at Beloyarsk 4 and due to start up in 2012. In contrast to the intention in Russia, these will use ceramic MOX fuel pellets. The project is expected to lead to bilateral cooperation of fuel cycles for fast reactors.
The CIAE’s CDFR 1000 is to be followed by a 1200 MWe CDFBR by about 2028, conforming to Gen IV criteria. This will have U-Pu-Zr fuel with 120 GWd/t burn-up and breeding ratio of 1.5, or less with minor actinide and long-lived fission product recycle. CIAE projections show fast reactors progressively increasing from 2020 to at least 200 GWe by 2050, and 1400 GWe by 2100.
Although both the BN-800 and CEFR are oxide-fueled designs, sources tell me that the Chinese are interested in metal fuel (a U-Pu-Zr ternary alloy) and pyroprocessing by the time they reach commercial fast reactors. CEFR actually uses uranium oxide (fabricated in Russia) since they do not have the MOX (mixed Pu-U oxide fuel) capability. My sources tell me that they cannot use metal fuel yet since they do not have the technology, nor fabrication facility. However, they are planning to develop the metal fuel capability and hopefully apply to CDFR. The plan is to start with MOX and then gradually switch to metal core and also to pyroprocessing for fuel recycling.
So, what of the detail behind China’s future plans? In my opinion, the best summary is a 43-slide presentation given by Xu Mi (Chief Engineer, China Institute of Atomic Energy), entitled “Fast Reactor Technology Development for Sustainable Supply of Nuclear Energy in China“, delivered at the China International Nuclear Symposium, November 23-25, 2010, Beijing. (Note: there is also related 50-slide presentation here). Xu Mi has also written a short paper called “Fast Reactor technology R&D activities in China“. Here are some particularly interesting slides (click to enlarge):
As you can see, China’s ambition in both Generation III and Generation IV reactors is substantial (as is India’s). Let’s hope, for the sake of a stable climate system and long-term environmental sustainability of the human enterprise, that the economic rise of these two 21st century superpowers is fueled by advanced nuclear (uranium- and thorium-based) and renewable energy (where competitive), and NOT built on the same fossil-fueled 19th century technology that underpinned the development of the West. Frankly, either this works out, with China and India as clean energy leaders, or our goose is cooked.