Recycling Used/Spent Nuclear Fuel Blog

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11 thoughts on “Recycling Used/Spent Nuclear Fuel Blog”

  1. Recycling spent nuclear fuel looks like it is an all around good idea. Could you please expound on the cost benefits of processing spent nuclear fuel instead of disposing of it?

    1. Reprocessing, or recycling used nuclear fuel makes sense on several levels. It is well understood, it is revealing some new methods of recycling (pyroprocessing, for instance), and it is becoming very attractive in view of fuel for next generation Small Modular Reactors. Consider:

      1. The bad actors in used nuclear fuel consist of “10% of 3%” of the used nuclear fuel (UNF). The 3% refers to the fact that fission products consist of 3% of all the mass in the UNF. Of this amount, about 10% consists of long-lived and medium-lived isotopes. Currently, recycling will simply take all the fission products, vitrify them (turn them into almost insoluble ceramic solid material) and sequester them for 300 years. This sounds like a lot, but when you do this, you remove all the dangerous radiation emissions and make the rest of the UNF easier to deal with. Perhaps some future research will find a useful purpose for the energy coming off fission products, but that has not materialized yet. There are some useful isotopes in the UNF, but it is not envisioned that there will be economic benefit to retrieve them. For now, this 3% of the material will simply be removed chemically and sequestered (shielded) from people.

      2. 95% of UNF consists of uranium. 95% of the UNF rods do not change during their 4-5 year stay in a reactor. The uranium simply depletes its useful energy part of the fuel rod (called U-235) and it is not effective to use for fuel anymore. About 1% of the fuel is converted into plutonium and actually produces energy. When the rods are removed, about 1% consists of “transuranics” (atoms heavier than uranium) of which about 80% is plutonium. The uranium is separated from the transuranics and, in a perfect world, plutonium is separated out as well. The worry about using plutonium for a bomb (unfounded in my estimation) may cause it to stay with the other transuranics. So, you get 95-96% separated uranium, 3% fission products and 1-2% transuranics, including plutonium (depending on how long the fuel remains in the reactor). All of this (except the fission products) can be used to make energy again, depending on the reactor design you use.

      3. Currently, the market for uranium is soft enough that the industry perceives it to be plentiful and cheap. However, only 5% is mined in the United States, so we count on imports for most of the uranium we use. However, a good deal of the rest comes from Australia and Canada, so the industry is not worried about that too much. Given the great proliferation of nuclear power throughout the world (mostly China) however, the demand will almost certainly grow. So, separating out uranium that can be used for energy again seems to be a better idea for the future. Why throw away an available clean energy resource, right? In any event, this is one argument in favor of recycling.

      4. The most important argument, however, is one of cost. Currently, it is looking like it will cost $200 billion to bury UNF directly into a deep geologic repository (which no State has agreed to do anyway). A 2,000 ton recycling plant looks to cost $25 billion. That still sounds expensive, but the difference in cost is huge….and we get to keep a valuable resource. So, what is the hold-up? We do not know, which is why we are looking to find one State in 50 that can see this logic and recycle UNF, garner the profit and future nuclear development work, and have the US Government pay for it. Yet, most of the industry is opposing this. Anyway, we could amass an inventory of uranium which could be used to power SMR designs which look to take different kinds of uranium fuel from 20% enriched (OK less than 20%) to depleted uranium. The economic benefit looks to be a $5 billion business case, which could soar to $50 billion if the smart State (we hope to be Virginia) sees the “light”, so to speak.
      5. Finally, it is the right thing to do. Almost always, the “easy” seeming solution is not the correct way to go. To some people “out of sight, out of mind” gets the bones off the plate. First of all, this attitude has delayed the disposition of UNF now for going on 5 decades. UNF from the Nuclear Navy (you never heard that as an issue, have you ?) is shipped routinely to Idaho and stored. It will be recycled by the Navy if, for no other reason, a great deal more of it is the power-producing U-235. If we are going to come to grips with our issues, stop passing along the responsibility to generation who were not even imagined when we created the issue, and take responsibility for our actions, we need to act now.

      6. Next generation reactors will be designed to use the products of recycled commercial UNF, it has festered as an issue for 5 decades, it is the easiest part of the nuclear fuel cycle technically to deal with, it is a gold mine since there is almost no risk and high profit, and will allow nuclear to proceed as a clean-energy, compact power source into the 21st century. It is the biggest no-brainer on the planet. Did I say “no-brainer”? I really did not mean that we are not using our brains in this issue….or did I?

  2. I have these questions for you.
    1. Why make another facility in Virginia when you already have the Savannah River facility that could be expanded?
    2. Why build a reprocessing facility here when we could send it all to France and get MOX fuel back like the Japanese are doing. This could be a good short term solution.
    3. As a layman Ive been under the impression that it was cheaper to bury it and make new fuel than recycle the spent fuel. I think many people believe that too.


    1. Good questions. The details of how it actually happens would be the purview of the program office to figure out. The first step is to convince Virginia to get in the front of the line. As Nathan Bedford Forrest so succinctly stated in the Civil War, the winner is “the firstest with the mostest”. We need to get Virginia on that track first.

      1. Almost certainly, we should expand the Savannah River facility, but having the Government run it would almost certainly triple the cost. It may be a good deal and if a private effort could be mobilized on the National Laboratory facility. I would be all for that. That facility, however, was conceived to convince Russia to turn over plutonium for down-blending to fuel. That deal fell through and the smoking $5 billion hulk sits as a monument to how well our Government manages large, multi-year projects to the best interest of our country. I do not know the capacity of the SRNL facility, but we would need about 2000 tons per year as a minimum. Even the French facility is less capacity than that, so it is doubtful that they would agree to do ours. The French facility is old and looking to shut down. You may know that Japan built their own recycling facility, but the 2011 earthquake set that back a bit. It is uncertain whether France will build another since transition to SMRs may preclude the need for that type of recycling. There is also little stomach in our Government to shipping plutonium out of the country. The only reason we do not recycle now is that innate fear on high levels of “leadership”. In fact, we may need two facilities anyway, so if the MOX facility at SRNL does get completed (doesn’t look promising), it could be used for more capacity after the Russian deal gets closed (also not looking good). Also, if South Carolina was OK with accepting UNF, our current effort would not be needed. I guess the bottom line is that we need to see where the project takes us after we seal the deal to take the UNF. But I am very skeptical of our Government running anything this big, especially for the private industry market. In fact, the current administration envisions a “private/public corporation” to be the eventual vehicle to run the UNF program, not DOE.

      2. Logically, it would be cheaper to bury it, but there is very little logic in the current system. The extra costs come from over regulation based on fears from a State that is desperately fighting to keep it out (Nevada). Their inane fears are adding a lot of overhead to the process (titanium drip shields, 4mR per year radiation limit to 1,000,000 years, for instance). Nevertheless, it is expensive to dig anything, even under the best of circumstances. The cost estimates for burial continue to rise, which is fine with Nevada because it is almost certain that Congress will not pay the $200 billion bill, especially if a $25 billion solution exists.

      3. Education is the key, of course. The nuclear industry is abysmal in this area. Despite a world-class program for education, they do not get the word out because they count on the local sections to do so and they are not very aggressive at it. No national advertising is evident, so wind, solar and fossil fuels rain their propaganda down on an ignorant public with no refutation from nuclear. One important way to do education to the public is through a speaker’s bureau, which would be ideal as part of the Virginia Section of the ANS. However, our overtures to them have gone unanswered. Onwards and upwards, I say.

      I hope this helps you understand the issue better. As you can see, I am always happy to discuss this. The bottom line is that our time is better spent getting a state to agree to accept UNF with these concessions first. If the project gets that far, it would mean a funded program office could get more into these details, but these and more questions are good and should be explored up front as well.

  3. Are you familiar with the Elysium Industries USA’s Molten Chloride Salt Fast Reactor, specifically designed to consume SNF without reprocessing?

    We are coming to DC this coming week, if you would like to hear more about it. I am staying in Virginia, Falls Church. I grew up there.

    1. Ed,
      I will be attending a lecture given by the Tokyo Energy Power Company’s VP – Naomi Hirose on The Fukushima Accident and Its Aftermath on Wednesday November 13th around noon at George Mason University. Hopefully we can meet sometime that day, if not a conference call with my colleague and yours will be nice.
      Thank You

    2. Molten Chlorine Salt Fast Reactors are going to be the final resting place for Small Modular Reactors, I am sure. I know there are technical challenges, but they have been given more attention lately and it is well worth the investment to attain this level of nuclear energy accomplishment. I am specifically interested in the process of using used nuclear fuel as feedstock for the reactor. There must be some processing necessary to prepare the used nuclear fuel for use in the reactor. Whatever it is, there is a component of recycling involved. The questions are: does it have to be done on-site where the molten salt reactor resides? Is it efficient to build the reactors where existing used fuel resides and process it on individual sites? The nation needs a quick solution to distributed used nuclear fuel, so would it make sense to centrally process it, take out the fission products, and export the TRU, Pu, and U as “fuel” for the molten salt reactor. One of the advantages of these reactors is that they can be built where they are needed and reduce transmission lines and place them underground. In this respect, it would not seem prudent to ship fission products in any form to these sites. If you take the fission products out, the remaining fuel would be far easier to ship. Please continue this dialog with me at [email protected] and help me understand the basics that are not on your site. I think we need to work together to move the nuclear industry along by actually handling the used nuclear fuel issue instead of avoiding it for another half century. Thanks, Ed.

      Tom and I will be at the American Nuclear Society NIMBY booth and at the conference Sunday through Thursday, November 17-21. It would be great if we could get together and help move this along. You guys are heroes to me for taking these ideas and making them reality with nothing but guts and good old American ingenuity, so let’s work this out.

  4. Albert R

    Message: You asked us all, what should be done with the “spent” fuel.

    I am happy to send you my answer, which is that the dry cask storage that you even show, seems to me a far better idea than the expensive nonsense of Yucca Mountain.
    Should every country in Europe send their civilian nuclear “waste” to one single location? No, so obviously there’s no need for an all- USA single location, and trucks or even railcars emitting CO2 to take it there!

    1. Thanks for your question. There are some very good reasons that keeping it on site would not be preferred

      1. The US Government is spending $750,000,000 per year to keep it there for no benefit. It will have to be removed some day because the Government promised the utilities and the States that they would. This payment will be going beyond $1,000,000,000 per year when all the spent fuel is taken out of the reactors.
      2. The States in which the used nuclear fuel remains are pushing for it to leave their states. They apparently do not know (or will not listen) that it is relatively safe where it is. If the US Government decides to keep it there, they will have to pay for it and refund all the money paid into the waste fund with interest back to the utilities. This is a $50 billion+ nut they do not want to take on.
      3. If you recycle the used nuclear fuel, you can recover about 95% of the original energy potential in the rods. That is a lot of energy there for the taking and it does not make much sense to ignore that clean air energy just sitting there (at $2.2 million per day). You have to agree as a taxpayer that this kind of waste is not preferred from our Government.
      4. Every country in Europe DOES send its waste to a single location and all of the big users of nuclear power recycle it.
      5. If you are worried about CO2, you should be heavily in favor of nuclear power because it is the most compact, has the best industrial safety record of all energy production industries, and is the quickest path to clean air and less CO2 out there.
      6. Maybe by the time it gets solved, there will be electric trains and trucks that won’t emit CO2 (though without nuclear, fossil fuels will probably be powering them).

      Again, thanks for the question. If you need further clarification, just let me know.

  5. Message: I am delighted by your existence!

    I think it’s a mistake to say that U-233 hasn’t been used because it’s more radioactive than Pu-239. The worry I’ve read about most, in particular from Thorcon, is that the ‘pure’ LFTR, a U-233, protactinium and thorium MSR could be a more tempting source of pure U-233 bomb material than their planned LEU and thorium design, because it might be easier to remove the villain-threatening U-232, than the bomb poisoning Pu-240.

  6. U-233 has not been used in bombs for a reason. This actually speaks in favor of thorium reactors. I support the development of thorium reactors technology. I would like to know more about your fear of U-232.

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