Russia to join international nuclear group

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MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti commentator Tatyana Sinitsyna)

At first, no one was eager to invite Russia to join a global nuclear energy partnership initiated by the Americans and aimed to promote joint research in six key areas of nuclear energy. But now there seems to have been a change of heart. Washington has at last extended an invitation to Moscow to join the United States, the European Union and ten other member nations of the Generation IV International Forum. Perhaps it was the effect of the St. Petersburg G8 summit.

There are, however, other explanations. First, the "tongue-in-cheek political games" that have been going on since the days of a bipolar world are still going on. No small role is also played by fears of the advantages enjoyed by a powerful rival, which Russia is. But all intrigues, ambitions and fears are pushed aside by the reality that physicists keep telling politicians about: "The end of nuclear energy is not far off." What will we do when the lights suddenly go out?

Nuclear experts, of course, know how this scenario can be pushed back. The main solution was aptly described by Yevgeny Velikhov, full member of the Russian Academy of Sciences and president of the Kurchatov Institute Research Center: "Nuclear energy has no future unless it uses fast breeder reactors." His message is that without them, nuclear energy will be no more than a short episode in history whose only consequence will be the need to find ways of getting rid of all the nuclear materials produced by humankind.

The fast reactor idea is not new: it has simply been on the shelf since the 1930s and has now been dusted off. Its author was the outstanding Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard, who knew the value of the idea and patented it after World War II in 1946. At the very beginning of the nuclear era, physicists already saw the most practicable road for the world's nuclear development. A fast neutron reactor can operate in a closed cycle and be self-sustaining in terms of fuel. This is very important, both for saving uranium resources and for disposing of radioactive waste, since its volume is drastically reduced.

But as nuclear energy advanced, it emerged that water-moderated, water-cooled reactors were more economical and safer for mass construction; and they were given priority. As a result, all countries are now building and operating mainly water-based nuclear facilities.

Russia, however, did not overlook Szilard's idea. First it designed and built a small reactor in Kazakhstan, and in 1980 the Beloyarskaya Nuclear Power Plant in the Urals launched Block No. 3 - the BN-600 sodium-cooled fast reactor - which is in service to this day.

Russia has done the most with this technology. "We have no equals now, we are absolutely competitive," Sergei Kiriyenko, head of the Federal Agency for Nuclear Power, said recently. The Beloyarskaya Nuclear Power Plant is still the world's only commercial nuclear plant with a fast breeder reactor. Drawing on their unique and invaluable experience, Russian designers have developed a more high-powered and advanced reactor, the BN-800, which is being built next to its cousin at Beloyarskaya. Designers are also working on the BN-1800 reactor.

Developing fast-reactor technology has been made a national project, but there are problems that are now in the spotlight of experts' attention. "For the time being the investment component and costs per kWh are higher with these reactors," said the academic supervisor of the TVEL Center for Technologies and Innovation, Mikhail Solonin, member of the Russian Academy of Sciences. "Since we are trying to produce competitive reactors, we should find a trade-off between two key factors: safety and economy. It is also necessary to master the recycling of nuclear material on a pilot scale."

Economical and environmentally safe technologies, such as those used by fast reactors, are the goal of the Generation IV International Forum. Russia has accepted the invitation and agreed to join it as a member. All that remains is for it to sign the Charter, and it will have the right to take part in all political, systemic and project activities. A framework agreement, which has the status of an international treaty and defines the legal force and types of cooperation, will take one more year.

The world, as it becomes increasingly more conscious of the global energy threat, is well aware that it is more worthwhile both materially and intellectually to concentrate its efforts on really vital issues. With a full nuclear cycle and unique experience under its belt, Russia can doubtless become a global partner.

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