China and Belgium have signed a framework agreement on the construction of a pilot MOX fuel fabrication plant in China, and a research collaboration agreement covering developments in the Myrrha hybrid research reactor project.
The framework agreement signed in the presence of the Chinese and Belgian prime ministers, Wen Jiabao and Yves Leterme, defines the context for construction of a pilot plant to produce mixed oxide nuclear fuel (MOX) and for the use of MOX in Chinese nuclear reactors. A commercial agreement including technology transfer and technical assistance could soon follow, according to Belgian partners Belgonucleaire, SCK-CEN and Tractebel. The plant would be built by the China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) with the support of the Belgian companies.
Belgium has a wealth of experience in MOX fuel development and production dating back to 1960, including 20 years of industrial MOX production at Belgonucleaire's 35 tonne per year Dessel plant from 1986 to 2006. MOX has been in use in Belgium's nuclear power plants since 1995.
China's nuclear plans would see it operating about 200 large reactors in 20 years time, and it wants to limit the amount of imported uranium required to support them. For that reason it is very keen to 'close' the nuclear fuel cycle by reprocessing used fuel to recover useful uranium and plutonium and then to recycle the plutonium in MOX. Reprocessing and recycling have the other benefits of greatly reducing the volume of high-level radioactive waste for disposal and of preparing and packaging that smaller volume at the same time.
China opened a 50 tonne per year pilot plant to reprocess used nuclear fuel in 2006, and the next year signed an agreement with France's Areva to look into the feasibility of building an 800 tonne per year reprocessing plant in Gansu province, employing advanced French technology and operated by Areva.
China into Myrrha
Wen Jaibao and Yves Leterme also witnessed the signature of an MoU on collaboration in nuclear research by Belgian nuclear research centre SCK-CEN and the Chinese Academy of Sciences, focusing on the Myrrha project. "The Chinese see Myrrha as a research infrastructure for preparing the solution to treat their nuclear waste," declared a joint statement on the agreement.
Myrrha (Multipurpose Hybrid Research Reactor for High-tech Applications) will be a sub-critical assembly relying on accelerated neutrons to achieve periods of criticality in a low-enriched uranium core. As well as being able to produce radiosiotopes and doped silicon, Myrrha's research functions would be particularly well suited to investigating transmutation. This is when certain radioactive isotopes with long half lives are made to 'catch' a neutron and thereby change into a different isotope that will decay quickly to a stable form with no radioactivity. If achievable on an industrial scale, transmutation could greatly simplify the permanent geologic disposal of radioactive waste.
Earlier this year, the Belgian government gave the go-ahead for the construction of the facility at SCK-CEN's Mol site in northern Belgium. Belgium is to contribute 40% towards the €960 million ($1.3 billion) investment the project will require, but SCK-CEN is looking to set up an international consortium to ensure additional financing. Myrrha itself is scheduled for operation in 2023, but a reduced power model, Guinevere, became operational at Mol in March 2010.
Researched and written
by World Nuclear News