Construction of a 300-MW nuclear power unit showcasing a fuel specially developed for the reactor is underway in Siberia, a project that industry experts say could provide a dramatic leap forward in nuclear power technology.

The project is being hailed as a way to provide a “practically inexhaustible” source of fuel for nuclear power, as the fuel could be reprocessed, helping solve the problem of what to do with the spent nuclear fuel.

The new unit, part of a demonstration project by Russia’s state-owned Rosatom, features a BREST-OD-300 lead-cooled fast reactor and is included in what Rosatom calls a Pilot Demonstration Energy Complex (PDEC) at the Siberian Chemical Combine in Seversk, in Russia’s Tomsk region.

Rosatom on June 8 announced the start of construction of the new unit and said the reactor will run on mixed uranium-plutonium nitride fuel, or MNUP, which has been specially developed for this facility. Rosatom said MNUP is “considered to be the optimal solution for fast reactors.” The Siberia installation is considered the world’s first experimental demonstration power unit featuring a lead-cooled fast neutron reactor.

Construction of a new BREST-OD-300 fast neutron reactor has begun at a site in Siberia, part of a demonstration project by Rosatom, the Russian state-owned nuclear power company. Courtesy: Rosatom

The PDEC is a group of three interconnected facilities, including a nuclear fuel production plant for fabrication and refabrication, along with the nuclear power unit, and a facility for irradiated fuel processing. Rosatom on Tuesday said it’s the first time “a nuclear power plant powered by a fast reactor will be built alongside closed nuclear fuel cycle servicing enterprises on one site.” Rosatom said the BREST-OD-300 reactor should enter operation in 2026. A fuel production facility will be built by 2023; construction of an irradiated fuel reprocessing module is scheduled to start by 2024.

‘Inexhaustible Fuel’

“The nuclear power industry’s resource base will practically become inexhaustible thanks to the infinite reprocessing of nuclear fuel,” said Alexey Likhachev, director general of Rosatom, in a statement. “At the same time, the future generations will be spared the problem of accumulating spent nuclear fuel. The successful implementation of this project will allow our country to become the world’s first owner of the nuclear power technology which fully meets the principles of sustainable development in terms of environment, accessibility, reliability, and efficient use of resources. Today, we reaffirm our reputation as a leader in world progress in the nuclear technologies, that offers humanity unique solutions aimed at improving people’s lives.”

The Siberian Chemical Combine is a facility operated by TVEL Fuel Co., a Rosatom subsidiary. The PDEC at the site is part of what Rosatom calls its “Breakthrough,” or Proryv, project, which the company said is working to develop “a new technological platform for the nuclear industry.”

“The successful demonstration of the fast reactor in a fully closed fuel cycle would reduce the amount of long live nuclear waste needed for future disposal,” said Rafael Grossi, director of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), in comments shared with POWER. “And the project will be interesting to watch for a second reason: it is self-contained. А fast reactor at a site containing all fuel cycle facilities would avoid the need for radioactive materials to be transported across any great distance.”

Flags fly above the construction site for Rosatom’s new BREST-OD-300 fast neutron reactor at the Siberian Chemical Combine in Seversk, in Russia’s Tomsk region. Courtesy: Rosatom

Rosatom said that after reprocessing, the irradiated fuel from the reactor will be sent for refabrication, or reproduction into fresh fuel. That allows the system to “gradually become practically autonomous and independent of external resources supplies,” according to the company.

“The implementation of the ‘Breakthrough’ project embraces not just development of innovative reactors, but also introduction of the new generation technologies of nuclear fuel cycle,” said Natalia Nikipelova, president of TVEL Fuel. “Firstly, this includes production of dense nitride MNUP fuel, which will ensure the efficient operation of a lead-cooled fast reactor and consist entirely of recycled nuclear materials such as plutonium and depleted uranium. Secondly, this means more efficient and economically attractive radiochemical technologies for the processing of irradiated fuel and waste management. Taken together, they will make the nuclear power of the future in fact renewable with a practically waste-free production chain.”

Reactor Touted for Safety

Rosatom said design of the BREST-OD-300 lead-cooled reactor is based on the principle of what it calls “natural safety.” The company in a news release Tuesday said the “features of the reactor made it possible to abandon the melt trap, a large volume of support systems, and also to lower the safety class of the non-reactor equipment.” It said the “integral design and physics of the reactor facility … only enhance the safety of nuclear power, but also make it more economically competitive in comparison with the most efficient thermal power generation.”

Fast reactors are touted for their ability to more efficiently use the nuclear fuel cycle’s secondary byproducts—plutonium in particular—for energy production. Rosatom noted that fast reactors have a high regeneration factor, and can produce “more potential fuel than they consume, and also burn out [use in the process of energy generation] highly active transuranic elements [actinides].”

The construction license for the BREST-300 reactor was issued in February. Titan-2 Holding, a Russian group of engineering companies that has worked on other nuclear power projects, including in Russia, Finland, and Turkey, will build the reactor building, turbine hall, and other infrastructure for the power unit. A RUB 26.3 billion ($360 million) contract for construction was signed in December 2019.

“I’ve been hearing about the BREST-300 reactor for a long time. The Generation IV International Forum which included lead-cooled fast reactors in its portfolio began about the year 2000 and BREST was being talked about for all that time,” said William Magwood, director general for the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency, in comments shared with POWER. The OECD, or Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, based in Paris, France, is an intergovernmental group of more than three dozen member countries that promotes economic progress and world trade. “I’m very glad to see this work after all these years [is] coming to fruition and we are now looking at this technology of the lead-cooled fast reactors with an advanced closed fuel cycle now reaching the stage of advanced construction, it is very encouraging,” said Magwood.

The BREST-OD-300 reactor will provide its own primary energy component, in this case plutonium-239, “reproducing it from the isotope uranium-238, which has a relative abundance of more than 99% [it is the isotope uranium-235, which makes about 0.7% of natural uranium, that is currently used to produce energy in thermal reactors],” according to Rosatom. The group said the technology “will increase exponentially the efficiency of natural uranium.”

New Nuclear Technology Platform

Russia and Rosatom have said they want to create a new technological platform for nuclear power. Rosatom researchers have said the strategy includes a two-component nuclear power industry utilizing thermal and fast neutron reactors, and a closed nuclear fuel cycle. The company has said “this envisages the widespread introduction of technologies for the recycling of nuclear materials, which would not only make it possible to expand the nuclear power industry’s raw material base many times over, but also solve the problem of accumulating spent fuel and nuclear waste,” saying their nuclear facilities “would reuse [spent nuclear fuel] products instead of storing them and radically reduce the volume of waste generation in the industry.”

Debate continues about nuclear power’s role in the world’s power generation. Proponents see it as critical in the fight against climate change and necessary to meet goals for decarbonization.

“Nuclear must have a seat at the table whenever future energy and climate policies are discussed. After all it is the only energy source to have a track record of decarbonizing electricity production at scale,” said Grossi. “Many of the technologies that will help move us to a more sustainable path have yet to be deployed. This is true across the world including in the nuclear sector. The small modular reactor is a promising technology in which Russia plays a role. It could provide an option for smaller and developing markets and for sectors difficult to decarbonize. This is why ongoing research and development in nuclear are so important and why I welcome advances enabled by projects like the one we are observing today.”

Darrell Proctor is a senior associate editor for POWER (@POWERmagazine).