A cut-away model of the Superphenix containment. From the National Atomic Museum
Location of Superphénix in France
|Official name||Site nucléaire de Creys-Malville|
|Operator(s)||NERSA, EDF (51%)
|Nuclear power station|
|Fuel type||MOX fuel|
|Cooling source||Rhône River|
|Make and model||Ansaldo|
|Thermal capacity||3,000 MW|
|Nameplate capacity||1,242 MW|
|Average generation||3,392 GWh|
Superphénix (English: Superphoenix) or SPX was a nuclear power station on the Rhône river at Creys-Malville in France, close to the border with Switzerland. Superphénix was a 1,242 MWe fast breeder reactor with the twin goals of reprocessing nuclear fuel from France's fleet of conventional nuclear reactors, while also being an economical generator of power on its own.
Construction began in 1974 but suffered from a series of cost overruns, delays and enormous public protests. Construction was complete in 1981, but the plant was not connected to the grid until December 1986. In operation, Superphénix demonstrated very poor reliability and had a historical capacity factor less than 7%, making it terribly uneconomic. Many of these problems were solved over time, and by 1996 the plant was reaching its design operational goals.
The plant was powered down in December 1996 for maintenance, and while it was closed it was subject to court challenges that prevented its restart. This became official in June 1997, when Superphénix was closed permanently. Over its ten years of operation, the plant is estimated to have produced just under 2 billion Francs worth of electrical power, while costing approximately 60 billion Francs to build and operate.
France had considered the problem of plutonium production just after the end of World War II. At the time, the conventional solution to this problem was to use a graphite moderated air or water cooled reactor fueled with natural uranium. Such designs have little economic value in terms of power production, but are simple solutions to the problem of "breeding" plutonium fuel, which can then be separated from the original uranium fuel with chemical processing.
However, it had long been known that another solution to the breeder reactor design was to replace the graphite with liquid sodium metal. The graphite is used as a moderator, slowing the neutrons released in the nuclear reactions to a speed that makes other uranium atoms sensitive to them. However, if one replaces the natural uranium fuel with one sensitive to fast neutrons, typically highly enriched uranium or plutonium, the reaction can run without the use of a moderator.
While this design eliminates the need for a moderator, the core still needs to be cooled. Ideally the coolant would be both highly efficient, allowing the core size to be reduced, as well as being largely transparent to neutrons. The most studied example of such a material is liquid sodium, although salts and other metals have also been considered.
This not only greatly reduces the size of the reactor, but the fast neutrons from a single reaction are capable of causing several breeding reactions. By surrounding the core with additional non-fertile material such as natural uranium, or even nuclear waste from other reactors, the breeding reaction will take place in a larger volume and in otherwise useless materials. This section is known as the blanket. Such a design also has the quality that it generates more fuel than it consumes, as long as the breeding ratio is greater than 1.
Such a design has three major advantages over conventional military designs; the entire reaction cycle occurs much faster so it breeds new fuel at a faster rate, it can use a wider variety of breeding materials because it is not used as the fuel as well, and it also generates ample amounts of heat, which can be used to efficiently produce power. The downside is that it has to be fueled with some sort of enriched fuel, although the plutonium being bred in the blanket can be used.
Earlier work and Phénix
Plans for a French fast reactor date as far back as 1958's Rapsodie, and followed up in 1964 for a larger design with a power output of 1 GWe. Construction of the Rapsodie facility started in 1962 and went critical on 28 January 1967. It did not have power producing systems, but it's 22 MW of thermal output (MWth) would translate to perhaps 9 MW of electrical output (MWe). Experiments on core configurations were carried out in the Masurca facility starting in 1966, and design of a larger power-producing facility was already well underway.
During the 1960s, interest in nuclear power was reaching a crescendo. For France, with little uranium supply of their own, large scale generation would be subject to supply constraints, especially given that nuclear power was experiencing a boom in construction that suggested the available supply would be limited even on a worldwide basis. In France's plans, breeders would serve the twin purposes of producing fuel for their conventional light water reactor fleet, as well as producing that fuel from the waste fuel from those reactors, thereby reducing the amount of nuclear waste they would have to dispose of. Only a small number of breeders, estimated to be around 20, would be required to fuel the fleet of about 200 light water reactors.
France began construction of the Phénix demonstration plant in November 1968, only a year after Rapsodie went critical. It was fueled with 931 kg of highly enriched plutonium, around 77% Pu-239. The fuel load is capable of running for about 90 days maximum, but in practice it normally ran for two month periods. Due to its design, refueling required the reactor to be shut down. As a result, it had a low capacity factor (CF), on the order of 65%. As a prototype plant, a high CF was not a design goal, although any practical design would have to improve this. Phénix demonstrated a breeding ratio of 1.16, meaning it produced 16% more fuel than it consumed, while also producing 233 MWe in normal operation.
Phénix ran without problems through the 1970s and 80s, but in the early 1990s it began to demonstrate a number of unexplained behaviours, including large power transients. This had serious safety implications, and the reactor was repeatedly shut down, spending most of the period from 1991 to 1994 being studied while offline. The long offline period required it to be recertified, so the plant also underwent a significant refurbishment between 1994 and 2002. It was finally rectified in June 2003, but only at a reduced power of 130 MWe.
In 1971 and 1972, France, Germany and Italy signed a number of agreements for the joint construction of full-scale breeders, one in France and one in Germany. The 1973 oil crisis made the issue of fuel security of significant importance. As part of the Messmer Plan, France began to plan for a future in which the vast majority of their electrical power would come from nuclear sources. New priority was given to a follow-on breeder design with the goal of continual operation, high CF, and economic operation even as a stand-alone reactor. This became the Superphénix design.
A public enquiry was carried out over an "excessively short" period from 9 October to 8 November 1974. This led to almost immediately opposition. In November, a group of 80 physicists from the Lyon Physics Institute wrote an open letter about the risks of breeder technology, and in February 1975, about 400 scientists signed their name to an expanded letter. On the other side of the argument, Andre Giraud, head of French Nuclear Commission (CEA), stated that they should carry on with the buildout, warning that delays would have "catastrophic consequences on the uranium savings that are expected." In spite of opposition, Superphénix construction pushed ahead in 1976, although this was not made official until the next year, when initial construction was already underway.
Design work began in 1968, the same year as construction began for the smaller-scale LMFBR Phénix, following the abandonment of the graphite-gas designs. The fast breeder design was chosen in the face of fears of disruption to the supply of other fuels; the "plutonium economy" seemed viable if oil prices stayed high and uranium supplies dwindled. Construction was approved in 1972 and lasted from 1974 to 1981, but power production did not begin until 1985. Costs rose rapidly during construction. The plant was run by the consortium NERSA, 51% owned by EDF, 33% by ENEL and 16% by SBK (Schnell Brüter Kernkraftwerkgesellschaft).
The construction evoked much public protest. For example, a march by 60,000 protestors, which included the Anarchist group militant de la Fédération Anarchiste, resulted in the protestors' use of molotov cocktails. This July 1977 protest was finally broken up by the CRS with the death of Vital Michalon and over a hundred serious injuries, with the police using truncheons and firing tear gas grenades to disperse the protestors.
Against a background of ongoing protest and low-level sabotage, on the night of January 18, 1982 an RPG-7 rocket-propelled grenade attack was launched against the unfinished plant. Five rockets were fired across the Rhône at the incomplete containment building. Two rockets hit and caused minor damage to the reinforced concrete outer shell, missing the reactor's empty core. Initially there were no claims of responsibility.
On May 8, 2003, Chaïm Nissim, who in 1985 was elected to the Geneva cantonal government for the Swiss Green Party, eventually admitted carrying out the attack. He claimed that the weapons were obtained from Carlos the Jackal via the Belgian terrorist organisation Cellules Communistes Combattantes (Communist Combatant Cells).
Designed electrical power output was 1.20 GW, though year to year its availability was from zero to 33%. As time passed, problems developed from another source: the liquid sodium cooling system suffered from corrosion and leaks. These problems were eventually fixed and in December 1996 the power reached 90% of the nominal power.
In December 1990 structural damage occurred to the Turbine hall, following heavy snowfall. Power production did not resume until the Direction de la sûreté des installations nucléaires approved it in 1992.
The plant was connected to EDF grid in 14 January 1986 and produced 4,300 GWh of electricity, worth about a billion 1995 Franc, during 10 months of operation, up until 1994. In 1996 it produced 3,400 GWh, worth about 850 million Francs, during 8 months of operation.
In September 1998, the plant was closed. Two incidents earlier in the year had culminated in a third, which triggered an automatic shutdown.
During 11 years, the plant spent 63 months of normal operations, mostly at low power; 25 months of outages due to fixing technical problems of the prototype; and 66 months were spent on halt due to political and administrative issues.
Superphénix had been a focus point of many groups opposed to nuclear power, including the green party Les Verts, since its planning and construction. A national network called Sortir du nucléaire was formed, bringing together hundreds of organisations: local committees, ecological associations, citizen movements and parties.
Power production was halted in December 1996 for maintenance. However, following a court case led by opponents of the reactor, on February 28, 1997 the Conseil d'État (Supreme State Administrative Court) ruled that a 1994 decree, authorizing the restart of Superphénix, was invalid. In June 1997, one of the first actions of Lionel Jospin on becoming Prime Minister was to announce the closure of the plant "because of its excessive costs". As Jospin's government included Green ministers, pro-nuclear critics argued that Jospin's decision was motivated by political motives.
Superphénix was the last fast breeder reactor operating in Europe for electricity production. According to a 1996 report by the French Accounting Office (Cour des Comptes), the total expenditure on the reactor to date was estimated at 60 billion francs (9.1 billion euro).
The last of the 650 fuel rods was removed from the reactor on March 18, 2003. They are now stored in spent fuel pools.
A public inquiry was launched in April 2004 to consider plans to set up a plant to incorporate the 5,500 tonnes of sodium coolant in 70,000 tonnes of concrete. The plan is similar to that used following the closure of the Dounreay Fast Reactor in the United Kingdom.
- Schneider, Mycle (2008). "Fast Breeder Reactors in France". Science and Global Security. 17: 36–53. doi:10.1080/08929880902953013.
- Schneider 2009, p. 36.
- Schneider 2009, p. 38.
- Rapin, M.; Barclay, F. J.; Allardice, R. H. (28 June 1990). "The Economics of Fast Breeder Reactors". Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series A, Mathematical and Physical Sciences. 331 (1619): 435–443.
- Liquid Metal Cooled Reactors: Experience in Design and Operation (Technical report). International Atomic Energy Agency. December 2007. p. 57.
- Schneider 2009, p. 39.
- Electricité de France Company History Electricité de France, accessed 2011-04-11
- week-end des 30 et 31 juillet 1977 : émeute antinucléaire à Creys-Malville contre la construction du surgénérateur Superphénix : un militant de la Fédération Anarchiste, Vital Michalon, est abattu par un tir de grenade. Tentative d’attentat à Paris contre l’agence EDF de Belleville : arrestations.
- Truncheons and tear gas.
- Robert Marmoz (23 June 2008). "30 ans après, hommage au manifestant tué". tempsreel.nouvelobs.com (in French). Retrieved 2 April 2010.
- https://www.sciencemag.org/content/215/4533/641.1.citation(subscription required)
- Sylvain Besson, Après vingt ans de silence, un ex-député avoue l'attaque à la roquette contre Creys-Malville, Réseau Sortir du nucléaire, August 2005 (French)
- SUPERPHENIX in figures, H. Nifenecker ISN Grenoble February 18, 1998
- Operating Experience History - SUPER*-PHENIX
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