Closing the Nuclear Fuel Cycle & Enhancing Nuclear Security
Revitalizing the field of radio chemistry for treatment of spent fuel from nuclear reactors to extract the energy contained in spent fuel, and to reduce the toxicity and heat load by two orders of magnitude.
As America intensifies its pursuit of low- or zero-carbon sources of energy for the production of electricity, as a Nation we have steadfastly remained on the sidelines while much of the world forges ahead in the recycling spent nuclear fuel.
As a result, U.S. leadership in this area has been all but lost, and the underlying technological capability and intellectual capital we need to compete internationally have diminished to near irrelevance.
Many countries, including France, Japan, the United Kingdom, Russia and India, are moving toward a “closed fuel cycle” by recycling spent nuclear fuel. They are doing so for two reasons. First, recycling recovers significant energy value from spent fuel that can contribute significantly to energy security. Second, recycling substantially reduces the volume and radiotoxicity of the remaining high-level nuclear waste that must be permanently disposed.
The Energy Institute Solution
Under the leadership of former Nuclear Regulatory Commission chair Dr. Dale Klein, the Energy Institute is promoting a resurrection of America’s long-dormant reprocessing program. Toward that end, Dr. Klein is developing a plan to examine storage, reuse, and final disposal of spent nuclear fuel in a systematic manner.
There are two basic paths to converting spent fuel to energy. The first, and most common is to use reprocessed material to make fuels for existing light or heavy water reactors. The second, and more efficient method, is to use fast reactors, as was used sixty years ago to produce the first electricity from a nuclear reactor.
Establishing domestic infrastructure to recycle nuclear fuel will require a public-private partnership that operates outside normal appropriations and has a charter to manage the fuel over a period of decades.
The Energy Institute also is pursuing research funding in the nuclear area for three specific projects: Nuclear Forensics and Non-Proliferation and Robotics (through the NNSA and LLNL), to develop analytical and experimental capabilities for the identification of the source material for both a “dirty bomb” and an improvised nuclear device if such a device is ever used; Nuclear Weapons Surety and Conventional Security (through the Department of Defense), which is focused on integrating recent nuclear studies and assessments of current security, safety, and use-control measures critical to validating and implementing short-, mid-, and long-term surety improvements; and Energy Security (through the Department of Defense), under which the Energy Institute and UT Austin’s Cockrell School of Engineering are exploring the potential use of small, modular nuclear reactors as a source of electricity.