Nuclear fuel recycling boost could achieve 80% recovery level
Researchers in Sweden are investigating ways to maximise the recycling of nuclear fuel for fourth-generation power systems.
The 9.4m euro project, headed up by the Chalmers University of Technology, aims to produce safe fuel that can be 80% recycled, compared to current levels of 1%.
Fourth generation power systems can lead to a reduction of the amount of high-level, long-lived nuclear waste to a tenth of what it is today, while energy output can increase hundredfold.
Many researchers believe the new technology will have a commercial breakthrough within 20 years. Germany is at present the only European country that has decided to phase out nuclear power.
According to Chalmers professor & nuclear chemistry research team leader Christian Ekberg, the technology required for fourth generation systems already exists.
He said: "What is needed now is for the different parts to be connected. One important aspect involves integrating nuclear waste recycling into the cycle so that nuclear power plants can be built with facilities to recycle waste and produce new nuclear fuel on-site."
Ekberg, who holds a professorship in industrial materials recycling, added that around 50 European researchers will take part in the project over four years.
"We will perform research on entirely new reactor fuels that are safer, use resources more effectively and that enable a more comprehensive approach to the waste issue."
Oxides currently dominate among the nuclear fuels that are produced from recycled nuclear waste. One example is MOX fuel. During the course of the project, researchers will examine other types of chemical compounds with uranium or plutonium. Examples include nitrides and carbides.
These chemical compounds are safer to use in reactors, amongst other things because their high melting point and thermal conductivity offer a higher safety margin in terms of a nuclear meltdown.
Researchers will also investigate whether the new fuels' qualities are as positive in terms of recycling and production. At Chalmers, researchers will primarily concentrate on nitrides.
"If it is possible to recycle as much as we think, at least 80% of nuclear waste will be possible to recycle," said Ekberg. "This would also mean that eight times as much of the remaining waste could be included in the final repository, since heat generation is reduced.
"In addition, the amount of long-lived nuclides in residual waste is reduced, which results in a significantly shorter storage period. However, it is important to remember that the final repository is still an important part of the fuel cycle."