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I recently learned about breeder reactors, which are able to create more fissile material than they consume. They seem to be superior to the types of nuclear reactors currently in use. What are the reasons why breeder reactors are not more prevalent.

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closed as off topic by David Z Aug 23 '12 at 21:13

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Just guessing here: New reactors cost a lot of money, and most current running reactors (at least in the United States) are decades old. There is little political or economic will to invest billions of dollars to build new reactors. –  Benjamin Horowitz Aug 23 '12 at 18:47
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Yeah, what Ben said is pretty much it: nuclear power in general is currently limited by politics, not technology. The answer to most questions of the form "why doesn't nuclear power X" is "politics". –  Colin K Aug 23 '12 at 18:58
    
Is there any technical reason why traditional reactors are superior? –  Brendan Abel Aug 23 '12 at 19:00
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@DavidZaslavsky Why is this offtopic? Is there a specific nuclear engineering stackexchange? The question is not solely political--- there is also the technical question of which breeder options are best, and there are many unexplored avenues here. –  Ron Maimon Aug 24 '12 at 6:25
    
@Ron ask the people who flagged it... anyway, as currently phrased, it's a political/economic question. –  David Z Aug 24 '12 at 14:35

3 Answers 3

up vote 6 down vote accepted

dmckee has the idea. The reason we do not use breeder reactors in the US is politics in general and nonproliferation specifically. Jimmy Carter essentially pulled the plug in 1977:

In an April 7 press statement, President Carter announced, “We will defer indefinitely the commercial reprocessing and recycling of plutonium produced in the U.S. nuclear power programs.”9 He went on to say, “The plant at Barnwell, South Carolina, will receive neither federal encouragement nor funding for its completion as a reprocessing facility.” (It was actually Carter’s veto of S. 1811, the ERDA Authorization Act of 1978, that prevented the legislative authorization necessary for constructing a breeder reactor and a reprocessing facility.)

Nuclear power is perhaps a uniquely political source of energy. It is simply not commercially viable without government support. The thing with breeder reactors is that you can't just take the fuel out of one and pop it into another reactor, you have to dissolve the spent fuel in acid and "polish" it to make MOX fuel.

At the Savannah River Site in South Carolina there is a project under way to build a facility that will make MOX fuel out of dispositionable nuclear weapons material (it's where I work, in fact). The feed material, though used in weapons, was indeed produced in breeder reactors. The technology behind the practical implementation of breeder reactors and the production of nuclear weapons is clearly linked.

You might also be interested in my answer to a similar question on the use of thorium reactors.

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Simple answer, but not physics.

One (kinda, long and compound) word: nonproliferation.

Uranium bombs are harder to make than plutonium ones, so breeders make it easier to build bombs.

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Uranium is also substantially cheaper than plutonium and the difference between costs saved and the adoption cost is not enough to warrant adoption on a large scale.

Another point is that, for many of Soviet-era breeder reactors, the coolant was liquid sodium, which, as we all know, doesn't react in a safe manner with water. Add a leak, and you've got yourself a safety problem. Water cooled reactors are more costly, and it would make no economic sense to adopt either of them.

Development of safe and efficient reactors was hindered by hydroelectricity in the USSR, due to safety features rendering nuclear energy less cost-effective than hydro. This is the root cause for the major part of the safety failures of Soviet nuclear reactors (and Chernobyl).

I can't really comment on the lack of US development to breeder reactors, as they don't come close to my area of expertise, but I would likely point to enviromentalists' political pressure, and reduced Uranium costs from Canadian imports.

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Liquid sodium has advantages, it doesn't turn into an explosive mix of hydrogen and oxygen for a start! And it's difficult to make it radioactive –  Martin Beckett Aug 23 '12 at 22:23

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