In the quest for energy independence, the United States looks to all forms of energy to fill its needs. Along with wind, solar and biofuels, nuclear energy can also help to supply enough energy to light cities and power industries. Breeder reactors offer the advantage of creating more fuel that is consumes.
How Nuclear Reactors Work
Nuclear reactors work through fission of uranium atoms, that is, a small uranium nucleus is split into smaller nuclei, which releases large amounts of energy. These smaller nuclei can then be absorbed into other atoms, which are also split. The chain of action continues until the fuel is spent. Helium or water is used to cool the atoms to bring them to the best temperature for fission. Uranium is not a renewable source of energy, however, and is not the most efficient way to generate power.
Breeder reactors use a different type of coolant, liquefied sodium, that keeps the uranium atoms in a highly excited state. Though this coolant keeps them at lower temperature for fission, they are converted into an isotope of uranium and then into plutonium, which can then be re-used as more fuel. These reactors can be made to create even more fuel than they consume. One of the disadvantages of breeder reactors is that they create material that can be used for nuclear weapons, which causes concerns about theft and the potential for terrorism. In addition, the initial cost and ongoing maintenance for these plants make them expensive to operate and do not lower costs for power.
The Superphenix Fast-Breeder Reactor
In 1984, France put into operation the first large-scale breeder reactor called the Superphenix. The plant was controversial from the start, sustaining a number of rocket attacks during its construction and almost continuous protests from environmental groups. A number of technical issues also plagued the plant, and it was finally taken off-line in 1998 because of excessive maintenance costs.
Nations with Breeder Reactors
The United States built its first breed reactor in 1963 in Michigan at the Enrico Fermi Nuclear Generating Station. It was decommissioned in 1972 because of engineering problems. Construction on another breeder reactor in Tennessee was stopped in 1983 due to budget cuts. Currently, China, Japan, Russia, and India are the only nations that have active breed reactors in operation.
Though costs and environmental concerns continue to be a problem for widespread construction of breeder reactors, new technologies and methods may allow them to be used with more success in the future.