WNISR, 3 January 2021
Construction site of the CFR-600 Unit 2 — Photo CNNC
Construction began 27 December 2020 on the China Fast Reactor (CFR-600) unit 2 according to the China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC).
The CFR is a sodium cooled reactor, also known as the Xiapu Fast Breeder Reactor (FBR) pilot project, and is being built in Xiapu County, Fujian province.
There remains uncertainty about the status of CFR-600 unit 1. It has reportedly been under construction since December 2017, but is not listed by the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Power Reactor Information System (IAEA-PRIS) as of 1 January 2021.
The CFR-600 design, developed by the China Institute of Atomic Energy, is based on the China Experimental Fast Reactor (CEFR) that was built with Russian technical assistance. China’s first fast reactor, the 20 MW CEFR, was connected to the grid on 21 July 2011, but currently is in Long Term Outage (LTO) following problems with fuel supply. In July 2019, Russian nuclear supplier Rosatom reported it had delivered a batch of fuel to the reactor. However, there was no public report about the restart of the unit.
The construction start of a second CFR-600 is surprising as China so far does not have operational industrial facilities for the reprocessing of spent fuel (the separation of plutonium) and for the fabrication of breeder fuel. However, reportedly, a 200-ton-per-year reprocessing plant is under construction since 2015 and scheduled to start up in 2025. Negotiations with France over the technology transfer of an 800-ton-per-year plant have been ongoing for years, but no binding commercial contract has been signed.
It appears that China is taking quite an industrial risk in simultaneously developing and building the various components of a plutonium-based system, including the construction in parallel of two units of a so far unproven reactor design.
There are multiple hazards with fast reactor programs that have been documented and analyzed over the years, and all programs worldwide have either been terminated or are decades behind original plans. One major issue with FBRs consists of the potential consequences for nuclear proliferation of operating reactors that require large feedstocks of plutonium as fuel but also produce weapons-grade plutonium in the so-called breeder blankets.
The proliferation dynamic inherent to FBR programs is of particular concern in East Asia, where Japan’s large plutonium program remains a central tenet of its nuclear strategy, and where China is now embarking on a large-scale plutonium fuel system.
The start of construction of CFR-600 unit 2 brings to 16 the number of reactors under construction in China, and to 50 in the world.