A substantial barrier to the implementation of Sodium-cooled Fast Reactor (SFR) technology in the short term is the perception that they would not be economically competitive with advanced light water reactors. With increased acceptance of risk-informed regulation, the opportunity exists to reduce the costs of a nuclear power plant at the design stage without applying excessive conservatism that is not needed in treating low risk events. In the report, NUREG-1860, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission describes developmental activities associated with a risk-informed, scenario-based technology neutral framework (TNF) for regulation. It provides quantitative yardsticks against which the adequacy of safety risks can be judged. We extend these concepts to treatment of proliferation risks. The objective of our project is to develop a risk-informed design process for minimizing the cost of electricity generation within constraints of adequate safety and proliferation risks.
This report describes the design and use of this design optimization process within the context of reducing the capital cost and levelized cost of electricity production for a small (possibly modular) SFR. Our project provides not only an evaluation of the feasibility of a risk-informed design process but also a practical test of the applicability of the TNF to an actual advanced, non-LWR design. The report provides results of five safety related and one proliferation related case studies of innovative design alternatives. Applied to previously proposed SFR nuclear energy system concepts.
We find that the TNF provides a feasible initial basis for licensing new reactors. However, it is incomplete. We recommend improvements in terms of requiring acceptance standards for total safety risks, and we propose a framework for regulation of proliferation risks. We also demonstrate methods for evaluation of proliferation risks. We also suggest revisions to scenario-specific safety risk acceptance standards, particularly concerning seismic and aircraft impact-related risks. Most importantly, within the context of the TNF historical SFR safety concerns about energetic core disruptive accidents are seen to be unimportant, but those of rare scenarios mentioned above are seen to be of dominant concern. In terms of proliferation risks the SFR energy system is seen not to be of considerably greater concern than with other nuclear power technologies, providing that highly effective safeguards are employed.
We find the economic performance of proposed SFRs likely, due to the problems of using sodium as a coolant, to be inferior to those of LWRs unless they can be credited for services to improve nuclear waste disposal, nuclear fuel utilization and proliferation risk reductions. None of the design innovations investigated offers the promise to reverse this conclusion. The most promising innovation investigated is that of improving the plant’s thermodynamic efficiency via use of the supercritical CO2 (rather than steam Rankine) power conversion system. We were unable to reach conclusions about the economic and proliferation risk implications of competing nuclear fuel processing methods, as available designs are too little developed to justify any such results. Overall, we find the SFR to be a promising alternative to LWRs should the conditions governing the valuation change substantially from current ones.