A March 22 article "Recycling uranium and plutonium: where's it heading?" on the Nuclear Engineering International website explores the status of uranium recycling and its future.
Programs for the recycling of plutonium were developed in the 1970s when it appeared that uranium would be in scarce supply and would become increasingly expensive. It was originally proposed that plutonium would be recycled through fast breeder reactors, that is, reactors with a uranium ‘blanket’ but which would produce slightly more plutonium than they consume. Thus it was envisaged that the world’s ‘low cost’ uranium resources, then estimated to be sufficient for only 50 years’ consumption, could be extended for hundreds of years. . . .
As things transpired, the pressure on uranium resources was very much less than expected and prices remained low in the period up to 2003. . . .
Revived interest in nuclear power in the 21st Century, as a clean air solution which contributes to world sustainable development, is encouraging the development of new materials and technologies. In addition, the substantial rise in uranium prices since 2003 and the difficulties with commissioning waste repositories have prompted the beginning of a revaluation of recycling. . . .
In particular, the USA is reassessing its previous policy, set strongly against reprocessing with subsequent recycling of recovered materials. The decision to introduce MOX fuel from ex-weapons plutonium in civil reactors was an important factor in that country’s change of policy and the first assemblies are now in use in reactors operated by Duke Power. In November 2005 the American Nuclear Society released a position statement saying that it “believes that the development and deployment of advanced nuclear reactors based on fast neutron fission technology is important to the sustainability, reliability and security of the world’s long-term energy supply.” This will enable “extending by a hundred-fold the amount of energy extracted from the same amount of mined uranium.” The statement envisages onsite reprocessing of used fuel from fast reactors and says that “virtually all long-lived heavy elements are eliminated during fast reactor operation, leaving a small amount of fission product waste which requires assured isolation from the environment for less than 500 years.”
The article then goes into a fairly long discussion of some of the reprocessing technologies, which is too long to reproduce here, but which may be of interest to some TEB readers.
Finally, the strong upward movement in uranium prices suggests that utilities owning inventories of reprocessed uranium (RepU) will look once again at utilizing these. The greater expense at the conversion and enrichment stages may now be outweighed by the substantially increased prices for fresh fuel. Electricité de France (EdF) is at center stage here, owning significant quantities of RepU as a strategic asset. A few years ago, these could fairly be viewed on the other side of the balance sheet, as a long-term liability, but such an assessment is now outdated. Certainly many European utilities (and maybe also some in the USA) are looking at RepU in a new light and possibly seeking to add to those who have already gone down this road (albeit in relatively small quantities).
To summaries, it seems clear that recycling remains a very live issue in the nuclear sector, indeed with an apparent push from several quarters to pursue it more vigorously in the future. Used fuel management is a huge and still growing business and options are being sought that hit a variety of requirements, certainly not merely economic but also considering environmental, resource sustainability and non-proliferation objectives.
While I believe that nuclear energy is one of the prime candidates for filling our needs for baseload power in the next 30 to 50 years, along with clean coal with sequestration (CCS) until renewable technologies can be developed to the scale needed for ongoing needs for electricity. I realize that there are many that are opposed to nuclear power, but recycling overcomes my main concern for nuclear power as it greatly reduces the amount of waste requiring long term storage and can reduce the time that the stored waste remains fissile. CCS technologies must be used in the near term as it can be implemented faster than nuclear and plants can be built with the capability for sequestration being added at a later date. Conservation must be a vital part of the plan for energy needs, but until energy prices become high enough to force conservation or some government mandate requires conservation it will be a slowly implemented practice.