US nuclear waste could power the US for 100 years

EBR-II at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory.

Photo courtesy of Idaho National Laboratory

There’s enough energy in nuclear waste in the United States to power the entire country for 100 years, and it could help solve the thorny and politically charged problem of managing spent nuclear waste.

It depends Jess C. Gehinassociate laboratory director at the Idaho National Laboratory, one of the government’s major energy research laboratories.

The technology needed to turn nuclear waste into energy is known as a nuclear fast reactor and has been around for decades. This was proven by a US government research laboratory pilot plant that operated from the 1960s through the 1990s.

For political and economic reasons, the technology was never developed on a commercial scale. Today, there is growing urgency to tackle climate change by decarbonizing energy grids, and nuclear energy has become part of the clean energy zeitgeist. As a result, fast nuclear reactors are again under serious scrutiny.

“I feel like it’s real — or more real — than it’s ever been to me,” said Brett Rampalnuclear energy expert Segra Capital Management and Checked. He did his senior project at the University of Florida on the subject in 2007 and remembers his professors were already arguing at the time about the future of the technology.

Proven technology

There are 93 commercial nuclear reactors at 55 operating sites in the United States, according to Scott Burnell, spokesman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Twenty-six are at one stage or another in the decommissioning process. All nuclear reactors operating in the United States are light water reactors, Burnell told CNBC.

In a light water reactor, uranium-235 fuels a fission reaction, where the nucleus of an atom splits into smaller nuclei and releases energy. The energy heats the water, creating steam which is used to power a generator and produce electricity.

The nuclear fission reaction leaves waste, which is radioactive and must be maintained with care. There are about 80,000 metric tons of spent fuel from light water nuclear reactors in the United States, and the existing nuclear fleet produces about 2,000 additional tons of spent fuel each year, Gehin told CNBC.

But after a light water reactor runs its uranium-235 fueled reactor, there is still a huge amount of potential energy available in what is left.

“Basically, in light water reactors, from the uranium that we extract from the ground, we use half a percent of the energy contained in the uranium extracted from the ground,” Gehin told CNBC during a a telephone interview. “You can get a lot of that energy if you were to recycle the fuel through fast reactors.”

Fast reactors don’t slow down the neutrons that are released in the fission reaction, and faster neutrons lead to more efficient fission reactions, Gehin told CNBC.

“Fast reactors can more efficiently convert uranium-238, which is mostly what’s in spent fuel, into plutonium, so you can fission it,” Gehin said.

Exterior view of the EBR-II, at the Idaho National Lab.

Photo courtesy of Idaho National Laboratory

Fast nuclear reactor technology has been out for over fifty years. A fast reactor plant called Experimental Breeder Reactor-II (EBR-II), began construction in 1958 and ran from 1964 to 1994, until Congress cut funding.

“We ran the EBR II reactor at the site for 30 years, salvaged uranium, put it back into the reactor,” Gehin told CNBC. “It’s been proven that it can be done. The trick would be to go to commercial scale to make sure it’s done in a cost-effective way. It’s a very safe technology. All the bases of the technology have been proven.”

While a fast reactor will reduce the amount of nuclear waste, it will not eliminate it entirely.

“There would still be waste to dispose of, but the amount of long-lived waste can be significantly reduced,” Gehin said.

Why it was never built to scale

In the middle of the last century, nuclear energy was seen as a solution to the eventual depletion of limited fossil fuel reserves.

At the same time, there were concerns that there was not enough uranium to power the conventional nuclear reactors the United States would need. Fast reactors were developed as a solution to both problems: they create large amounts of energy and use only minimal amounts of uranium fuel, Gehin told CNBC.

But things have changed. “We started to find out that there was actually quite a bit of uranium there. And so there was no need to use it as efficiently,” Gehin said.

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Then nuclear power as a whole began to fall out of favor, largely due to the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in Pennsylvania in 1979, Gehin said.

Also, the economy was a factor. Coal, then natural gas, remained plentiful and cheap. Fast reactors were generally considered more expensive than traditional light-water reactors, Gehin said, making them an unattractive area of ​​investment.

“The development of the first commercial fast reactors in the United States also suffered from cost overruns,” Gehin said.

Fast forward to 2022. With energy prices soaring thanks to Russia’s war in Ukraine, and with the public’s growing call to switch to energy sources that don’t emit gas greenhouse effects that warm the planet, nuclear energy is getting a makeover. At the same time, innovators plan to redesign fast reactor technology to make it more cost-effective, Gehin said.

Currently, Russia is the only country producing electricity with fast reactor technology. India and China plan to build commercial fast reactors in the future.

In 2019, the US Department of Energy announced that it was building its own Fast Spectrum Test Reactor, the versatile test reactorbut it was not funded in the FY 2022 omnibus funding bill. By not having a pilot test facility in the United States for nearly 30 years, the United States “ effectively ceding leadership to Russia, China and India who have this critical capability,” The Office of Nuclear Energy said in a written statement in May.

As the government moves slowly, start-ups oklo and Terra Power and energy giant westing house are working on fast reactor technologies.

The EBR-II control room at the Idaho National Lab.

Photo courtesy of Idaho National Laboratory

Russia dominates supply chains

Even as private companies strive to innovate and commercialize fast reactor designs, there are significant infrastructure hurdles.

Before it can be used to power fast reactors, nuclear waste must undergo reprocessing. Currently, only Russia has the capacity to do this on a large scale. France also has the capacity to recycle spent nuclear waste, Gehin said, but the country typically recovers its recycled fuel and reinjects it into existing light water reactors.

For now, the Idaho National Laboratory can reprocess enough fuel for research and development, Gehin told CNBC, but not much more.

Private companies commercializing fast reactor technology are pushing for the development of national fuel supply chains. TerraPower says it is investing in supply chains and working with elected leaders to build political support, while Oklo has received three government awards and is working with the government to commercialize reactor fuel supply chains quickly at the national level.

The other option for powering fast reactors is to create HALEU fuel, which stands for High Dosage Low Enriched Uranium, from scratch, rather than recycling nuclear waste. (Where conventional reactors use uranium enriched up to 5%, HALEU is uranium enriched up to 20%).

It is arguably easier to produce HALEU directly than by recycling used waste, says Gehin, but in the end the cheaper option will win out. “A lot of it will be driven by what makes economic sense.” Anyway, Russia is the only country that has the capacity to manufacture HALEU on a commercial scale.

Oklo CEO and co-founder Jacob DeWitte says he’s optimistic about recycled fuel, even if it comes after commercial-scale HALEU production.

“It looks promising enough to be economically more attractive than fresh fuel,” DeWitte told CNBC. “This process uses electrorefining to electrochemically recycle transuranics and uranium from waste material into fuel feed. We are aiming to have this facility operational in the latter part of the decade.”

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