A unique nuclear power generator that uses weapons-grade plutonium from decommissioned nuclear weapons and radioactive waste generated by traditional nuclear power plants to generate electricity has won the prestigious “Top Plant” recognition from an influential U.S. magazine on energy industry.
Power, a respectable publication that chronicles the advancement in power generation facilities and various technologies in the electricity generation segment, has nominated Russian fast-neutron breeder reactor, the BN-800, for its annual “Top Plant” award. Although the reactor was signed for commercial operation on Monday, its concept and construction has been in existence since the 1980s. Interestingly, the nuclear reactor has managed to survive the intense criticism of nuclear power after the Chernobyl disaster. Moreover, the reactor’s construction began when Russia was officially known as the United States of Soviet Russia or USSR.
The 789 MWe BN-800 reactor is located in the sprawling Beloyarsk Nuclear Power Plant, in Sverdlovsk Oblast, Russia. The power plant was selected for Power Award’s Top Plants category, which honors recently commissioned facilities “that exhibit some unique design or technology that will be of general interest to the power industry,” reported RT. The other power plant to win the nomination was the Peach Bottom Atomic Power Station in Pennsylvania.
The BN-800 reactor is an important step forward in nuclear power generation because it addresses the two big challenges that countries face today. Countries like the United States and Russia face the problem of dealing with aging arsenal of nuclear weapons that is sitting in the silos across the two countries. These nuclear weapons will soon cross their “use-by” date. While nuclear weapons do not expire, the technology they work on quickly becomes obsolete. Essentially, these developed nations will soon have a huge stockpile of obsolete nuclear weapons.
While these weapons will have to be safely decommissioned, the major problem will be to manage the huge amount of weapons-grade plutonium that the two superpowers manufactured during the height of the cold war. Commonly referred to as the MOX fuel, the weapons-grade plutonium from decommissioned nuclear warheads will have to have to be used in a productive manner. Until recently, the countries had a deal wherein both the nations would build MOX-fuel manufacturing facilities and reactors to consume it. However, after U.S. failed to stay true to its part of the deal, Russia suspended the deal in protest. Interestingly, though the deal remained suspended, Russia had confirmed it would continue to develop reactors that consumed the MOX fuel.
Apart from using the weapons-grade plutonium, the BN-800 reactor also addresses the other primary concern of nuclear power plants; the storage of spent fuel. Capable of using waste from traditional nuclear reactors, the world’s most powerful sodium-cooled fast-breeder reactor will eventually boast of closed nuclear fuel cycle. Needless to say, these methods of nuclear power generation will significantly reduce the amount of spent nuclear fuel which is still highly radioactive, needs to be stored in permanent sealed repositories and protected from accidental spillage.
The Power magazine applauded the BN-800 reactor owing to the multiple features it boasts. If needed, the nuclear reactor can produce isotopes or even regenerate plutonium. Additionally, the fast breeder reactor has been built with several passive safety features, some of which are independent of human intervention to ensure the infamous Chernobyl disaster isn’t repeated.
Incidentally, the BN-800 reactor’s concept predates the Chernobyl disaster which occurred in 1986. Construction on the new-age reactor began way back in 1984, but was significantly hampered by the disaster. Though the construction was never halted permanently, the collapse of the USSR severely cut its funding, further impacting the development. The BN-800 was finally resurrected in 2006 amidst Russia’s booming economy and calls for boosting electricity generation.
Interestingly, the reactor was brought to minimum controlled power for the first time in June 2014 and it was swiftly hooked up to the country’s electricity grid the following year. The state-owned power generating company, Rosenergoatom, deployed it for its commercial operation on Monday, reported World Nuclear News.
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