Impact of Breeder Reactor on Fuel Supply

As discussed earlier, breeder reactors produce more fuel than they consume, since in these reactors some of the uranium 238 is converted to plutonium 239, which like uranium 235 can be easily fissioned. Such breeder reactors if employed on a wide scale could considerably extend the fuel supply. Several countries including the US, France, and Japan have constructed and operated breeder reactors. Unfortunately to date, these systems have proven to be challenging engineering efforts. Breeder reactors use liquid metal, usually liquid sodium, as a coolant. Sodium when exposed to water reacts violently, oxidizing at a high temperature which produces a sodium fire that is difficult to extinguish. When used in a reactor and exposed to neutrons, sodium becomes radioactive. Because of the high temperatures and the chemical reactivity of the radioactive liquid metal coolant, breeder reactors have been difficult to operate reliably.

Another concern is the large amount of plutonium that is produced in a breeder. Since the plutonium may be separated from the uranium using chemical processes, there is concern that the large quantities of plutonium 239 produced in a breeder might lead to the proliferation of nuclear weapons. The plutonium 239 produced in a breeder although not weapons grade may, like uranium 235, be used to make a crude nuclear weapon.

In spite of these very real challenges, countries that have little or no uranium such as India are willing to accept the difficulties of developing and deploying large numbers of breeders. India is in the process of constructing a 500 MWe breeder that it hopes will become a significant source of fuel for its nuclear power program. Since India lacks significant domestic reserves of uranium, it has to maximize the uranium utilization and plans to do so using breeders to supply its light water reactors with fuel.

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