The first fuel is being loaded into Russia's newest fast breeder reactor, Beloyarsk 4, in preparation for startup of the unit within months.
Fuel loading began on 2 February and will continue over the next three months. It is the latest step in a sequence that began in December 2013, when the reactor was filled with its sodium coolant and received the necessary permits from Russian nuclear regulator Rostechnadzor to begin the fuel loading and pre-startup tests. The reactor is expected to reach first criticality in April.
Beloyarsk is one of Russia's oldest nuclear power plant sites. Two prototypes of the RBMK light water graphite-moderated reactors operated at the site from the 1960s until the end of the 1980s, and are now being decommissioned. Beloyarsk 3, a 560 MWe BN-600 fast reactor, has been in commercial operation since 1981.
Beloyarsk 4 is the first-of-a-kind BN-800 unit. Construction initially began in 1986, but was subsequently put on hold and resumed in 2006. At 789 MWe, it will become the most powerful fast reactor in operation. The Beloyarsk site has also been earmarked for the future construction of two BN-1200 fast reactors, currently being developed by designer OKBM Afrikantov.
Fast neutron reactors are typically fuelled using a mixture of oxides of uranium and plutonium, and can vastly increase the efficiency of the nuclear fuel cycle by using the uranium-238 recovered from recycling nuclear fuel after use in conventional nuclear power reactors. They can also be used to burn the long-lived actinides found in high-level nuclear wastes and to dispose of ex-military plutonium.
Fast reactors feature in Russia's long-term nuclear energy plans, which envisage a move to inherently safe nuclear plants using fast reactors with a closed fuel cycle and mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel. As well as the BN series of reactors, Russia is also developing the lead-cooled BREST fast reactor, the lead-bismuth cooled SVBR and a multi-purpose fast neutron research reactor, the MBIR.