Construction of Russia's BN-1200 fast-neutron reactor delayed until 2030s

Anatoly Diakov, Pavel Podvig

According to a story published in Kommersant, Russia's BN-1200 fast neutron reactor is unlikely to come online until 2036. An earlier plan called for the first BN-1200 unit to begin operations in 2030 with dense nitride uranium-plutonium fuel.

Russia's national nuclear company (Rosatom) believes that, in the longer term, the development of nuclear power requires a closed fuel cycle based on fast-neutron plutonium-breeder reactors. In February 2010, Russia's government adopted the federal target programs (FTP2010) "Nuclear Energy Technologies of the New Generation for the Period of 2010-2015 and until 2020." The program focused on the development and demonstration of a variety of prototypes of fast-neutron lead, lead-bismuth and sodium cooled reactors with closed fuel cycles. Although the most developed fast-reactor technology in Russia is sodium-cooled reactors, the FTP2010 gave priority in financing to lead-cooled fast-neutron reactors with dense nitride fuel. The program included two projects - the BREST-300 lead-cooled fast reactor with associated nitride fuel fabricating/re-fabricating and spent fuel reprocessing facilities and the SVBR-100 lead-bismuth fast reactor, which were expected to be completed in 2020.

As for the sodium-cooled reactor, FTP2010 allocated funds only for the design of a larger commercial reactor, the BN-1200. The design work was expected to be completed in 2016. Rosenergoatom, the Russian utility operating nuclear power plants, planned to begin construction of three power units with BN-1200 reactors in Russia by 2030. The Beloyarskaya NPP has been selected as a site for the first BN-1200 unit.

The decision to begin construction of the reactors has been delayed, however. One reason given is the need to reduce the construction cost to the level comparable to that of light-water reactors. Another is the need to develop the fuel fabrication technology for both MOX and dense uranium-plutonium mixed nitride fuel, based on the operating experience of the BN-800 reactor.

In August 2015, Rosatom's Scientific & Technical Board undertook a review of the BN-1200 project. The review concluded that BN-1200 technology will not have a competitive advantage in the market. In addition, the Board wanted to have a better understanding of all aspects of the fuel cycle. Taking into account the economic factors and the need to improve fuel for the BN-1200 Rosenergoatom decided to delay the construction decision to at least 2020. Meanwhile, operating experience of the BN-800 reactor is to be used to work on fuel fabrication technology for both MOX and dense uranium-plutonium mixed nitride fuel.

In March of 2018, the Government of the Russian Federation, citing the economic slowdown that has led to lower energy demand projections, issued a decree that amended the FTP2010. Now the program is to be focused only on the construction of the nitride fuel fabrication module and the first stage of the fuel re-fabrication facility. Recently Rosatom announced that the nitride fuel fabrication/re-fabrication facility will be commissioned no earlier than 2022. The BREST-300 reactor is now expected to begin operations in 2026. SVBR-100, which Rosatom was planning to build without support from the state budget, has been effectively discontinued. It is also important to note that the BN-800 reactor, which was supposed to provide BN-1200 with the operating experience and data on the closed fuel cycle, is yet to operate with a fully loaded MOX core.

The decision to delay construction of BN-1200 to the 2030s can therefore be explained by a combination of factors, which include: the economic situation in the country, the reduced projected demand for electric power, the uncertainty about the economic effectiveness of BN-1200, as compared to VVER-1200, the lack of a proven technology for the production of dense nitride fuel as well as the fact that BN-800 is yet to begin operations with MOX and nitride fuels.