ALEXANDRIA, Va. — The Energy Department’s Office of Nuclear Energy has begun a limited program to explore opportunities for recycling used nuclear fuel, a senior official said Tuesday.
“We are starting a small effort to look at some of these options, but it’s early in development and there’s no clear outcome on where it’s going to lead,” Andrew Griffith, deputy assistant energy secretary for nuclear fuel cycle and supply chain, said during the opening presentation at the Institute of Nuclear Materials Management’s 35th Spent Fuel Management Seminar.
Griffith said it was too early to discuss details of the effort. But he said the focus for now is on “smaller approaches” to demonstrate the technology, and the benefit of the technology, and then potentially grow the work.
Since being sworn into office in July 2019, Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy Rita Baranwal has said on a regular basis she believes the nation’s stockpile of used fuel represents an untapped resource for power production. She reaffirmed her stance during a presentation Friday at the Energy Communities Alliance annual meeting in Washington, D.C., but did not discuss any specifics.
Spent fuel retains as much as 95% of its original energy. Yet the federal government has for decades tried to find some place to bury it forever – with the federal property at Yucca Mountain, Nev., being the legally required location under the amended 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act. That same law put DOE in charge of the disposal program, but it has made little progress.
The Office of Nuclear Energy is nominally in charge of DOE’s nuclear waste management programs, but its focus is on promoting existing and new forms of nuclear power technologies.
The Idaho National Laboratory is a leader in the Energy Department’s research on nuclear fuel cycle technologies, including advanced recycling systems. An agreement announced with the state of Idaho in November will allow DOE to again ship spent-fuel rods to the lab for research on commercial nuclear fuel.
The energy and water portion of a “minibus” appropriations bill for the current fiscal 2020, signed into law in December, provided roughly $1.5 billion for DOE nuclear energy research. It gave the Energy Department 90 days to provide Congress with a report “on innovative options for disposition of high-level waste and spent nuclear fuel management.” The agency was separately directed to within 60 days contract with the National Academy of Sciences for a study on the waste aspects of advanced nuclear power reactors – including “the impact of possible reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel on waste generation.”
The United States has not had a commercial nuclear fuel recycling facility since the Nuclear Fuel Services plant in West Valley, N.Y., suspended reprocessing in 1972 after six years of operation. What was intended to be a temporary suspension for upgrades became permanent.
Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter put commercial reprocessing on ice in the 1970s. President Ronald Reagan reopened the door for that private recycling in the 1980s, but it has yet to resume. Cost and proliferation concerns have prevented fuel recycling from taking hold domestically, Griffith acknowledged.
The plutonium that is separated from used fuel in reprocessing can be put back to use in nuclear power plants, but could also be employed to fuel weapons. Studies have also found that direct disposal would be significantly less expensive than reprocessing and reusing nuclear fuel in light-water reactors. Meanwhile, DOE is supporting commercial concerns that aim to build next-generation reactors that could change the cost equations for power production and waste management.
Any federally licensed facility would be required to maintain nuclear safeguards and security requirements, to address proliferation concerns, Griffith said. He said the economics would be challenging: “It will require capital investment; it will require evolutionary changes to how we manage spent nuclear fuel.
“But we believe it’s a value to look at it,” Griffith told the audience. “Clearly the technology we’ve been developing over the years all lend itself toward how could we do it more cost-effectively, how could we do it with higher performance, and so forth.”
Resumption of reprocessing in the United States is not likely to eliminate the need for disposal, Griffith suggested. The current domestic inventory of fuel from the nation’s light-water reactors, if reprocessed, would outstrip the number of reactors that could reasonably be built to use it, he said.
There is currently more than 80,000 metric tons of used fuel stored on-site at over 70 active and retired nuclear power plants around the nation. Operational facilities generate another 2,000 to 2,500 metric tons each year, according to the Energy Department.