Innovative recycling project could reduce U.S. inventory
of spent nuclear fuel
to reduce the nation’s growing inventory of stored spent nuclear
fuel, a group of nuclear engineering faculty, scientists and students
from Big 10 universities, the University of Chicago and the U.S. Department
of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory will develop innovative
nuclear fuel cycles that will recycle and dispose of this high-level
radioactive material. The project also will educate the next generation
of scientists and engineers.
The group will base its studies in the Center
for Advanced Nuclear Fuel-Cycles (CANF), a new initiative housed at
Argonne. Co-directors at Argonne and the University of Wisconsin-Madison
will lead the center.
Nuclear fuel used in current reactors has enormous
available energy. As the fuel is used to produce electricity, only a
fraction of this available energy is consumed, generating a small quantity
of high-level radioactive waste within the solid fuel.
Currently, most spent nuclear fuel is stored
temporarily in secure, specially designed pools at commercial reactors
around the country, or in leak-tight steel casks housed in aboveground
concrete vaults. When space there is full, the fuel could end up at
a planned commercial temporary-storage facility in Utah, or perhaps
at the proposed Yucca Mountain high-level waste repository.
But these storage options are short-term approaches
to dealing with the back-end of the nuclear fuel cycle, says
Michael Corradini, a UW-Madison professor of engineering physics
and the center’s co-director. “We hope to develop a ‘sustainable’
fuel cycle—that is, an efficient, cost-effective way to reuse
current spent nuclear fuel and minimize its by-products,” he says.
“Advanced nuclear fuel cycles can be recycled as a source of available
energy as demand for uranium increases.”
Some countries, including Japan and France,
currently reprocess their spent nuclear fuel using a process known as
PUREX (plutonium and uranium recovery by extraction). The CANF team
will seek to improve upon these separation and recycling processes.
“The major difference is that we are looking for ways to successfully
extract specific radioactive species for separate uses and separate
disposal,” says Corradini.
The researchers will tackle the problem in a
number of ways. Among their initiatives, they will develop sophisticated
computer models and perform comprehensive simulations to predict key
physics processes. They hope to develop innovative diagnostics and instrumentation
techniques and collaborate with the U.S. Department of Energy to apply
those tools to the nuclear fuel cycle. In addition, they will develop
flexible fuel forms, unique materials and advanced chemical-separations
processes, enabling them to establish a “just-in-time” fuel
supply system that minimizes waste and the risk of proliferation.
A reduced proliferation risk is just one of
the benefits of advanced nuclear fuel cycles, says Phillip Finck, deputy
associate laboratory director at Argonne and the center’s co-director.
“They can significantly shorten the needed isolation time and
reduce the amount of high-level waste housed in any repository,”
he says. “Ultimately, this should reduce the cost of the Yucca
Mountain repository and may preclude the need for additional waste repositories.”