Reprocessing spent nuclear fuel

Recycling plutonium waste from civil nuclear fuel reprocessing
The uranium and plutonium in spent nuclear reactor fuels can be reprocessed or recycled into fuel suitable for light-water and fast reactors. Reprocessing is closely linked with reactor waste management (separation and concentration techniques, in particular). Such radioactive materials are also "recycled" as explosives.
Fuel for nuclear power stations comes from concentrated uranium which is made into fuel rods. The average life of a nuclear fuel rod is four years, after which time waste products have built up making it less efficient. Reprocessing is the chemical operation which separates the useful fuel for recycling from the waste. There are only two commercial reprocessing plants in the world - Sellafield in the UK and Cogema in France. But Japan is developing its own plant at Rokkasho-muira.

The reusable uranium is turned into a powdered form, processed into fuel pellets and sent back for use in nuclear reactors. Each six-gramme pellet holds the equivalent energy of one tonne of coal. British Nuclear Fuel (BNFL) says three pellets can provide a family's needs for an entire year.

Reprocessing techniques are being constantly refined by British Nuclear Fuels Limited (BNFL), UK and COGEMA in France, so as to reduce amounts of waste produce. BNFL's Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant (THORP) has advance orders worth £9,000 million, involving 34 utilities from nine countries and covering 14 years of operation. It is estimated to make around £500 million profit for BNFL in its first ten years of operation. The French company CEA is developing techniques of separating out, and later incinerating, longer-lived isotopes.

Increasing emphasis is also being laid on the scope for recycling plutonium, in the form of mixed oxide fuel (MOX) in thermal reactors. MOX production lines are operated by Belgonucléaire in Belgium and by COGEMA in France; others are being built or expanded in a number of European countries. MOX fuel is being manufactured in Europe at plants in Dessel (Belgium), Marcoule (France) and Sellafield (UK) and is being used in reactors in France, Germany, Switzerland and elsewhere. MOX reprocessing in Russia is currently carried out at Chelyabinsk, but will be switched to the new large integrated complex plant being built at Krasnoyarsk.

A number of countries, including the UK, France and Japan, have expressed their intention to extract the plutonium content from their used uranium fuel. Some or all of this is for storage as weapon-grade material. The nuclear industry claims there is also scope for using thermal or fast reactors to burn plutonium from military stockpiles.

If the new British reprocessing plant (THORP) goes ahead, it will be vastly more difficult to persuade Russia to shut down its unsafe reprocessing (wastes being reprocessed exploded at Tomsk in 1992).
Metallic elements and alloys
Manufacturing processes
Resource utilization
Type Classification:
D: Detailed strategies