China's Experimental Fast Reactor Plugs Into the National Power Grid
The China Experimental Fast Reactor is China's first such power plant and is the culmination of over 20 years of research into fast-reactor technology by the China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC). The reactor first achieved criticality on July 21st of 2010 and began producing usable electrical power exactly one year later.
While not new, the technology involved in running fast breeder reactors is complex and demands a certain level of sophistication at all levels. Take cooling, for instance: water is not a suitable coolant as it is a neutron moderator. Instead, liquid metals such as sodium or lead are used, with molten salt an option for the future. The CEFR is a sodium-cooled, pool-type reactor rated at 65MW of thermal power and 20MW of net electric power.
Fast neutron reactors like the CEFR have several advantages that really hit home in today's nuclear-paranoid world. One benefit comes from the fuel: a mixed-oxide (MOX) combination of uranium and plutonium that can achieve 60 percent efficiency compared to just 1 percent in conventional, water-cooled nuclear reactors. In addition, fast neutrons produced in the reactor transmute long half-life waste with half-lives measured in tens of thousands of years to less troublesome isotopes with a maximum half life of just 27 years!
On the downside, fast neutron reactors have no control rods, instead relying on advanced technologies such as Doppler Broadening or finely tuned neutron reflectors.
The China Experimental Fast Reactor has a stated lifetime of 30 years. Although it is now producing electrical power for home and commercial use through the national electric grid, that's not the reactor's prime purpose. Instead, according to CNNC, the reactor will act as a functioning testbed that will provide China with design, construction, and operational experience to be put towards future fast neutron reactors.
"Fast neutron reactor is a major type of fourth-generation nuclear power plant," said Xu Mi, chief expert for the experimental fast neutron reactor, "and it sets the direction for the development of the fourth-generation nuclear power plants."
The reactor's location at the China Institute of Atomic Energy outside of Beijing also means the CEFR is perfectly placed for researching and testing relevant components and materials. In a nutshell, China's view of a nuclear-powered future remains unclouded, unshaken and uncomplicated by worries over long-term radioactive waste that have turned off the public in other countries. (via Xinhuanet, NTI, and Nuclear Engineering International)
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