Russian reactor running on weapons-grade plutonium from warheads named ‘top plant’ by US magazine

The main control panel of the fourth generating unit with a BN-800 nuclear reactor at the Beloyarskaya Nuclear Power Plant in Zarechny, Sverdlovsk Region. © Pavel Lisitsyn
The influential US magazine on energy industry, Power, has chosen the BN-800, Russia’s new fast-neutron breeder reactor, for its annual ‘Top Plant’ award. The reactor was signed for commercial operation on Monday.

The BN-800 reactor located at the Beloyarsk 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.” The Russian facility was honored alongside the Peach Bottom Atomic Power Station in Pennsylvania.

The world’s most powerful sodium-cooled fast-breeder reactor is part of Russia’s ambitious plan to have a closed nuclear fuel cycle. It is capable of using waste from traditional nuclear reactors, dramatically reducing the amount of radioactive waste that needs to be stored in a permanent sealed repository.

Another key feature of BN-800 is its ability to work on MOX fuel, which is produced from weapons-grade plutonium from decommissioned nuclear warheads. Until recently, Russia and the US had a deal on weapons plutonium reprocessing, which would require both nations to build MOX-fuel manufacturing facilities and reactors to consume it.

After the US failed to stick to its part of the bargain, Russia suspended the deal in protest, but said that in practical terms it intended to stick to it. The new breeder reactor can also be used for producing isotopes or – if needed – new plutonium. The fact that BN-800 can serve multiple purposes is one of the reasons Power recognized with the award it this year.

The magazine also remarked the number of passive safety features the reactor boasts, such as hydraulically-suspended absorber rods, which would drop down and shut down the reactor core, if the sodium coolant flow were to drop to half of the rated level.

“Fast-neutron reactors are pivotal to Russia’s ambitious nuclear power plans. The successful construction, grid-connection, and testing of the country’s first BN-800 reactor at its Beloyarsk nuclear plant is a major achievement in the right direction,” Power wrote.

Construction of BN-800, the fourth reactor at the Beloyarsk plant, began in 1984, but saw significant delays first after the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, which required an overhaul of the reactor’s design to boost safety, and later by the shortage of funding after the collapse of the USSR. The project was reinvigorated in 2006, amid Russia’s economic growth, which provided both the necessary investment and the demand for boosting national electricity generation.

The reactor achieved first criticality in June 2014 and was connected to the grid in December the following year. In August, in underwent comprehensive testing at full power, successfully passing it. On Monday, Rosenergoatom, the state-owned operator of BN-800, endorsed it for commercial operation.