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New Recycling Technique Enables Spent Nuclear Fuel Rods to be Used Again

By Charles Kennedy | Wed, 27 June 2012 21:25 | 6

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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  • Bruce on January 20 2014 said:
    to date there is a ton of spent fuel that no one has been able to really come up with a way to dispose of. the concept of Pyroprocessing and the IFR method is essential to look into if not for the sustainment or ability to improve performance, but to mitigate the vast amount of spent fuel already here in the US.

    I worked at a NPP and can say that any answer that solves some of these problems NEEDS INVESTIGATION immediately.

    If the above is true and the cancelation is due to politics or $$$ it is imperative that someone take up the fight for environment and our children and provide Hazel O'Leary a path to social embarrassment.
  • stephen slee on July 02 2013 said:
    very intresting i hope its researched futher.
  • Jan Fialkowski on February 10 2013 said:
    Sorry folks .. Have you ever handled reprocessed fuel? Pu is part of the fission process and is man made. It's half life is 23,000 years .. Chopping the spent fuel rods doesn't negate this part of the cyle .. Pu is deadly.. It's there, contaminating every tiny bit of the chopped up fuel rod .. 'Snake oi' theories abound here I'm afraid .. How do I know? I've handled billets of Pu metal in the bomb making process .. I also received whacks of neutron radiation which couldn't be mesured accurately at the time .. Thanks a billion BNFL ..
  • G.R.L. Cowan, hydrogen-energy fan until ~1996 on June 29 2012 said:
    IFR = Integrated Fast Reactor. In the mid-1990s the US government and some others were about to build it. It was to be an evolution of the EBR-II, if I recall correctly, and so it would have had metal fuel (so that the calcium reduction step would not be needed. And also no reoxidation step once the fissionable metals had been de-ashed).

    The pyroprocessing would have occurred on-site, which is to say, it would have been Integral.
  • Milt Reynolds on June 29 2012 said:
    G.R.L. Cowan, what is "IFR"?

    I appreciated your comments...sounds like you're way more in-tune with the issue than I am. The main thing I'm getting from the article is that cheap raw material (uranium) makes it economically easier to dispose of 95% of the fuel rod rather than try to recycle it. Seems like that's the story of human technology...economics in the short run have a higher priority than ecology in the long run.
  • G.R.L. Cowan on June 28 2012 said:
    Pyroprocessing works really well with metallic fuel. If it is in ceramic form, as Kennedy says, this is typically uranium dioxide or a mixture of it and plutonium dioxide. Pyroprocessing this requires the addition of a metal that can take oxygen from actinide metals, e.g calcium, to do so and so convert them to metals.

    The IFR was cancelled at Hazel O'Leary's behest, and she had gas-industry links, but it really is only little more threatening to fossil fuel interests -- which of course include the US government -- than burners of UO2 in water, because UO2 is abundant enough in the rocks under the bum of just about everyone reading this to make those rocks as energy-rich with respect to fuelling today's reactors as the Alberta tar sands are with respect to fuelling today's cars.

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