A pilot demonstration energy complex is being built at the Siberian Chemical Combine in Seversk as part of a power unit with a BREST-OD-300 reactor. According to the plan, by 2035, the Russian nuclear power industry will become two-component: both thermal reactors and fast-neutron reactors will operate simultaneously, which will close the nuclear fuel cycle. Thus, nuclear energy will become green – independent of the uranium raw material base, renewable, carbon-free, and based on the principles of safety and non-proliferation.
Vyacheslav Alexandrovich Pershukov is a Doctor of Technical Sciences, Professor, Head of the Proryv Project, special representative of Rosatom State Corporation for international and scientific and technical projects.
− Vyacheslav Alexandrovich, in terms of the scale of activities being implemented, the Proryv Project is often compared to the nuclear project. Tell us about its story. How was it formed, and what are its main goals?
− It’s an interesting and multifaceted question. The comparison of the Soviet nuclear project, which was formed to ensure the country’s security in the post-war period, and the Proryv Project is based on the amount of resources that the state allowed to be formed to solve the task. The task of the nuclear project was related to national security. Whereas the task of the Proryv Project is to create a new platform for nuclear energy, which avoids those negative phenomena that have manifested themselves during the 70 years of the existence of traditional nuclear energy.
By the way, already in the 1950s nuclear physicists were calling for a different way to develop nuclear energy. However, industry representatives chose a different path: the path of creating thermal-neutron reactors, the platform for which was ready. But as we have seen, there’s always a price to pay.
Now there is an understanding that the time has come to form a new nuclear energy platform based on the use of all neutron energy. We get an amazing opportunity to significantly expand, up to infinity, in the human sense of the word, the resource base and solve the problem with spent nuclear fuel, making nuclear energy practically waste-free.
By the time we began implementing the project, Russia already had experience in operating fast-neutron reactors – a key element of the new platform. Therefore, the project participants immediately began working to solve the task. And thanks to the Federal Target Program “Nuclear Power Technologies of a New Generation,” the idea received funding, and the “second atomic project” was formulated.
We managed to preserve the principles of project management that were used for the first nuclear project. Only unlike our predecessors, who did not have ready-made structures and plants, we were looking for key specialists in the existing nuclear industry, among employees of departments and organizations.
− Are fast-neutron reactors the only ones that can provide for a closed nuclear fuel cycle?
− Let me start off by saying that fast-neutron reactors have an amazing feature: during irradiation of uranium fuel, plutonium is obtained, which becomes an energy raw material and is sent back to the fuel cycle. Whereas the energy of thermal-neutron reactors is not enough to use plutonium as a raw material. At the same time, real attempts are being made all over the world to use plutonium for mixing with uranium fuel. Such a mixture is called MOX fuel. It is used as additional fuel for the most common type of nuclear reactors: light-water and thermal-neutron reactors.
However, often after processing, the fuel cannot be put back into the fuel cycle of light-water reactors. It requires either deep processing and isolation of plutonium isotopes, which can be run again and recycled each time, or the so-called process of refining plutonium for reuse in a thermal reactor.
Simply put, spent nuclear fuel from light-water reactors is refined in fast reactors and then used as fuel in thermal reactors.
Thus, fast neutron reactors make it possible to repeatedly use plutonium, which is obtained as a result of irradiation, for the refabrication of new fuel and its repeated recycling in fast reactors. Thus, the fuel reaches an equilibrium composition of radiation equivalence.
− What does it mean?
− Radiation equivalence means that at the output we get the same level of radioactivity that was at the input. So, the natural balance does not change. That is, we load some ordinary uranium-238 to the already irradiated nuclear fuel, forming new fuel for a new cycle. Thus, a constant equilibrium equivalent use of isotopes that were extracted from the earth and which were then buried in the ground is ensured.
− I remember the saying that everything genius is simple.
− It’s not about being genius, but about using the natural principles of recycling. For example, we have learned to reuse copper to create new products. It is enough just to add about 10% of pure ore to the raw materials. Everything else is reusable. The same principle, as it turned out, applies to nuclear fuel.
− What are the main tasks of the Proryv Project?
− The project is aimed at solving five tasks. First of all, nuclear power must be safe. Calculations say that the probability of an accident at a nuclear power plant with thermal-neutron reactors is 10-6, and at a nuclear power plant with fast-neutron reactors, it’s 10-9. This is the principle of natural safety. For example, the new BREST reactor (Fast Reactor of Natural Safety), due to its characteristics, is designed to ensure that in the event of an accident (albeit unlikely), the consequences will not go beyond the station. That is, the evacuation of the population will not be required.
The second task is aimed at providing an unlimited resource base.
The third is to implement the principles of radiation equivalence.
The fourth principle is the principle of non-proliferation. It is associated with the historical use of nuclear weapons for military purposes, the main element of which was plutonium. The new nuclear energy platform allows us to strengthen non-proliferation in terms of technology. We do not separate uranium and plutonium. This means that the latter is not suitable for military purposes.
And the fifth task is aimed at ensuring the competitiveness of nuclear energy. It should be competitive on par with conventional gas generation, renewable energy sources. In this direction, we are actively working on developing technical solutions: we use a heavier coolant, a more compact reactor; less concrete, and less reinforcement during the construction of the hull. Today we are at the stage of checking the calculations. For this purpose, an experimental and demonstration energy complex is being built.
− I would like to talk about it in more detail. At what stage is the construction of the complex in Seversk?
− Since 2011, we have been actively working on the creation of a pilot demonstration complex, where the possibility of closing the fuel cycle with the fabrication of a new type of fuel, with a new type of reactor, and with a new type of reprocessing should be realized. And all within the same platform. A real nuclear battery. At the input, harmless Uranium-238 is received, at the output – a small number of fission fragments, the radioactivity of which allows burying without consequences for man and nature.
In 2015 we chose a site in Seversk, Tomsk Oblast. The construction site was chosen according to several criteria. The first is that the site belongs to the Siberian Chemical Combine, which has experience working with both plutonium and uranium and mastered the methods of processing and enrichment. It is symbolic that the first industrial reactor that generated heat was launched in Seversk, and not in Obninsk. But in those years, it was a classified facility, so the fact was not advertised.
Another important criterion for the project is the proximity of Seversk to Tomsk, which has 100 thousand students and teachers per 400 thousand inhabitants, and where the university environment is very strong.
Of course, we will face difficulties in recruiting, training, and retraining, but at least the human resource in Tomsk is constantly being updated.
And the third criterion is the distance from the border. But this is rather due to security concerns.
I’d like to note that any energy system starts with fuel. Therefore, since 2015, the construction of the fuel fabrication-refabrication module has been underway. At the moment, the construction part is complete, the main technological equipment has been manufactured, specialists are carrying out the installation. It is planned that in 2022-2023 we will launch the module and begin to produce fuel for loading the reactor.
The BREST reactor is the next element of the operational cycle. By 2020, it was fully ready for installation. However, coordination with Rostechnadzor takes time since rules and regulations for the operation of such technologies have not yet been developed anywhere in the world. Meanwhile, specialists issued a conditional license, and in June 2021, the process of construction of the BREST-OD-300 reactor plant began.
According to the plans, the construction of the reactor plant will be completed by 2026. After that, about 3 years will be required for the first loading, launch, and operation of the already irradiated fuel, which should be sent for processing.
In 2025, we will begin the construction of a processing module with upgraded hydropower processing. And already in 2030, PDEC specialists will realize the main task of the complex and close the fuel cycle. There is very little time left. It may seem that 10 years is an eternity, but in fact, when I began working on this in 2011, we were determined to implement the tasks of the project already by 2020. However, today it is already 2022, and we have realized what uncertainties we must face.
Of course, today, thanks to a significant acceleration of scientific and technological progress, a huge increase in resources, the life cycles of any scientific projects are sharply reduced. However, this is not the case for energy. And at the same time, it is energy that is the backbone element of the economy of the entire planet.
− It is clear that the transition from the traditional platform to the new one will take place gradually. But still, when will this energy heat and light the homes of the Russian population?
− In fact, it’s already doing it. Why was Russia able to announce the Proryv Project? Because the line of fast-neutron reactors with sodium coolant has already been developed. BN-350, BN-600, and BN-800 reactors have long been used at nuclear power plants and provide electricity to the grid. You don’t know which particular plant you’re getting kilowatts from. It’s a network. And nuclear energy never works for the end-user (this is prohibited by law). Nuclear power is the basic system that ensures the functioning of the energy ring.
I will try to rephrase your question: when will the transition from thermal to fast reactors take place? Rosatom has already adopted a strategy for the implementation of a two-component nuclear power system because, in fact, it already exists.
According to the adopted strategy, the transition obviously will not happen simultaneously since the life cycle of the nuclear power plant is 60 years. Why close the plant if it still produces electricity? Therefore, we expect that by the end of the century the process of transition from thermal to fast reactors will be completed.
− You mentioned that the project is unmatched in the world. Don’t other countries understand the need to switch to a different type of reactor and create a new platform?
− Of course, they understand. First of all, our colleagues from France understand. We are actively cooperating with them. However, now a younger generation of politicians has come to power, who are calling for limiting the development of nuclear energy in the country. Today, the focus has shifted towards renewable energy sources: solar and wind energy.
The US has completely abandoned the development of the industry, based on the principles of non-proliferation of nuclear weapons. According to the report of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, it is prohibited to recycle spent nuclear fuel in the United States. There were attempts, but due to political peculiarities, the projects were frozen.
The situation in China is very different. Today, China is one of the greatest nuclear energy powers. In terms of generation, they have long overtaken both us and France. Now Chinese colleagues are implementing a large program to create sodium coolants. We share with them our accumulated experience. And even though they started only in 2000, they have made serious progress over the years. Well done. Of course, we cooperate with an eye on not losing our own primacy.
Koreans are actively trying to develop nuclear power at fast reactors. But the most interesting situation is in Japan: after 30 years of trying to start the Monju reactor with a sodium coolant, it was simply closed. At the same time, after Fukushima, the Japanese government formulated the main requirement for the further development of nuclear energy: the use of fast-neutron reactors.
Why? Simple: American Westinghouse technologies ended up in Japan in the post-war period. To prevent the Japanese from using plutonium for military purposes, a government agreement was formulated, according to which 100 tons of plutonium is already considered a natural limitation. And it does not matter in what form it will be developed. Therefore, the Japanese cannot develop this industry, nor even work at a number of their conventional nuclear power plants.
Oddly enough, the only country that is seriously developing fast-neutron nuclear power is India. But India is doing this completely apart from the nuclear community. First of all, the Indian Government has not adopted a number of international conventions. Secondly, Indian specialists use thorium, not uranium, as raw material. As it turned out, on an industrial scale there is no uranium in India, but there is a huge amount of thorium in thorium sands. However, Indian nuclear scientists are still far from implementing it.
− You mentioned ITER and the French transition to renewable energy sources. Can we say that in the current conditions nuclear power has more competitors?
− Competition has always existed. Another question is whether ITER will become a natural competitor. In my opinion, no, because the indicators of time, cost, and availability of technologies for energy are very different. Of course, nuclear fusion, unlike fission, has no limitations. However, there is still no answer to the question of whether humanity can control nuclear fusion on planet Earth.
Plus, ITER does not produce electricity. Its main task is to prove the possibility of plasma control. According to the plans, we will be able to get an answer only by 2035.
− Let’s conclude. Setting big and small goals, a person always tries to see the end result. What do you see as the end result of the Proryv Project?
− I hope that in the near future we will successfully demonstrate the process of closing the nuclear fuel cycle, and solve the problems that hinder the development of nuclear energy.