Some Questions and Answers about Nuclear Fuel Recycling

by Laurence Pernot

Though people who follow the debate over used nuclear fuel are well aware of the benefits of recycling, we’ve found that many in the general public don’t even know that it’s an option.  There’s a lot of confusion out there about used fuel recycling – whether it’s feasible, practical, and safe.

So we’ve prepared this brief FAQ about nuclear fuel recycling and about AREVA’s innovation in this crucial part of our nuclear future.  We hope you’ll find it useful.  Please be sure to post any other questions you might have about recycling in the comments section… we’re always looking for ways to engage in better and more fruitful dialogues about nuclear fuel recycling.

Why should the US recycle used nuclear fuel?

First and foremost, here in the U.S., that is a decision that has to be made by the government – taking into account its own policy determinations and the needs of U.S. utilities.  Nevertheless, we think that recycling is an economically, environmentally and socially responsible approach.  Here’s why:

  1. As with other materials, used fuel recycling is an effective process for optimizing the use of energy.
    In the U.S.:
    • 2,000 tons of used fuel are unloaded on average each year by U.S. 
      reactors.
    • 58,000 tons of used fuel are stored on reactor sites and require  management for the foreseeable future.
    • Recycling 54,000 tons of used fuel would provide enough fuel to run all US reactors for 7 years.
  2. Recycling fosters energy independence and contributes to the energy security of the U.S.  According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the demand for electricity is expected to increase significantly over the coming decades.  Fuel recovery decreases the need to import raw materials.
  3. Recycling reduces the need for new uranium by 25%.  Fuel recovery helps the environment by reducing mining.
  4. Recycling is a competitive solution compared to a once-through approach in which used fuel is stored for a period of time and then disposed in a geologic repository.

    Recycling accounts for just a few percent of the cost of one kilowatt-hour produced. In the U.S., a recent study carried out by the Boston Consulting Group revealed that the cost of including a recycling component to the repository program would produce life cycle costs comparable to a once-through repository strategy. Moreover, the price increases for uranium that have been experienced over the last year make recycling even more cost competitive and raw material recovery an increasingly interesting prospect.

    AREVA has already treated more than 22,000 tons of used fuel from several countries. That means that recycling costs are well known. This is not the case with the once-through approach, for which there is no existing industrial facility at this time, making it difficult to forecast the ultimate cost.

    As a reminder… the objective of BCG’s study was to review the economics of the back-end of the nuclear fuel cycle and, in particular, a fuel cycle which includes developing a recycling component in the US using a technology consistent with America’s nonproliferation objectives.

  5. Recycling makes the management of used nuclear fuel an easier task.
    • It reduces long-term radiotoxicity in the repository by a factor of 10.
    • It reduces the volume of waste by a factor of at least four.
    • It integrates the most difficult wastes into durable, manageable glass form.
  6. Recycling postpones or eliminates the need for additional civilian repository capacity.

    In the US today, the first national repository is limited by statute to a maximum capacity of 63,000 metric tons of civilian used nuclear fuel. The total volume of used fuel to be generated in the country by 2100 is expected to significantly exceed the statutory capacity. Implementation of recycling will postpone or eliminate the need for siting, funding, and constructing additional geological repositories.

  7. Recycling contributes to reduction of used fuel inventories at reactor sites. It eliminates the need for additional investments in interim storage capacity.

What role could AREVA play in the future of U.S. spent fuel recycling?

Currently, AREVA and its team of US and Japanese industry leaders are under contract with DOE to explore the commercial viability of used nuclear fuel recycling and advanced recycling reactors in the U.S.

AREVA operates the largest and most successful used fuel treatment and recycling plants in the world, with the La Hague and Melox plants. Today, we have  commercially-available technology that can be implemented in the near future.

Is a repository needed with recycling?

With or without recycling, a geological repository is necessary to receive unusable radioactive materials (fission products which are not recyclable) for final disposal. However, with recycling, the volume and toxicity of this waste would be significantly reduced, saving the need for additional repositories.

What affects the decision-making process about used fuel in the US?

Dealing with used nuclear fuel is more of a public confidence issue than a technical issue.  It’s often demonized because of a lack of knowledge.  Recycling used nuclear fuel is an industrial solution available today. It’s based on existing and proven technologies, which provide assurance of the highest levels of safety and security. It is manageable and managed.

We hope these answers have been useful to you… if you have any additional questions or comments, we’d love to answer them!  Please leave them in the comment box below.

  • koyle101

    What does recycling entail? is it the same as reprocessing?

    • jadams

      Reprocessing is the technical term for recycling nuclearf fuel. Opponents of recycling prefer the term because it makes it appear that it is somehow less desirable than is say recycling plastic or glass.