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Nuclear power is currently the cheapest form of producing clean electricity, however it is inefficient and leaves waste products that are potentially very dangerous and a pain to dispose of. Current technology only uses less than five percent of the uranium found in a fuel rod, after which the ‘spent’ fuel rod must be replaced with a new one, and stored in pools for thousands of years until it is safe.
The main reason why so little of the uranium is used in the fuel rod is that most nuclear plants use light-water reactors (LWR) which are relatively safe and cheap, but very inefficient at using all the available energy in the fuel rod.
Scientists at the US Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory think they have found a way to access the remaining 95% of the uranium in the fuel rod. Their technique could produce hundreds to thousands of years worth of carbon free energy just by reusing the uranium that has already been mined, and is currently considered ‘spent’.
Their new technology is called pyroprocessing. It takes the ‘spent’ fuel rod, which leaves the reactor in a hard ceramic form, and chops it up into small pieces in order to convert it back into metal. The metal is then placed in a vat of molten salts, called an electrorefiner, where an electric current is used to separate the uranium from the truly spent fuel. The uranium is then used to recreate a new fuel rod, and the junk is cast into stable glass discs and placed into permanent storage. Whilst the waste material must still be put into permanent storage, this need only be for a few hundred years rather than the thousands of years normally required.
The problem facing new technologies trying to enter the nuclear industry is that uranium is so cheap that it’s actually cheaper to just use the fuel once, and dispose of it after, rather than recycle it. This is because new methods to be used in the nuclear industry must first be researched, tested, and approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), a process which is both expensive and time consuming. Currently the NRC is familiar with LWR technology and offer little incentive to research or design new technology or new types of reactors.
By. Charles Kennedy of Oilprice.com
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Charles is a writer for Oilprice.com