WA Energy Northwest interested in Curio recycled nuclear fuel

Energy Northwest of Richland is the first commercial nuclear power producer to sign up to potentially buy recycled nuclear fuel from Curio, a small startup.

Today, other countries, like France, with nuclear energy programs recycle used nuclear fuel, but not the United States.

Instead, nuclear fuel is removed from commercial power plants after several years of use and stored until the nation has a national repository for it.

Curio, based in Washington, DC, plans the first plant in the country to recycle used nuclear fuel from commercial nuclear power plants to produce new nuclear fuel, as well as other products.

Recycling low-enriched uranium fuel “would represent a game-changing development for the future of commercial nuclear power,” said Bob Schuetz, CEO of Energy Northwest.

Energy Northwest owns and operates the Columbia Generating Station, just north of Richland, Washington. It is the only commercial nuclear plant in the Northwest.

Outside the plant, on a concrete slab in a secure area, are 54 concrete and steel drums – each 19 feet high and 11 feet in diameter – containing spent fuel from the commissioning. factory service in 1984.

The used nuclear fuel was supposed to be taken to a national repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. But with no intention of pursuing this project, the United States continues to search for a site for a repository of spent nuclear fuel from all commercial power plants in the country as well as nuclear reserve fuel from Hanford.

“Yesterday’s nuclear waste is holding back tomorrow’s reactors,” said Edward McGinnis, Curio’s chief executive and former acting deputy secretary for nuclear power at the Department of Energy for 2½ years.

The nation now has nearly 95,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel with no future and about 2,200 tons are added each year.

Energy Northwest alone has paid $100 million in royalties since 1983 to the DOE for the pending national disposal of spent fuel.

Opponents of nuclear power often cite the lack of a disposal site for spent nuclear fuel in the country as a reason for not increasing production.

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Energy Northwest’s Columbia Generating Station near Richland, Wash., is the Northwest’s only commercial nuclear power plant. Timothy J. Park Courtesy of Columbia Power Plant

“This is a great opportunity…to reduce the footprint of spent fuel,” said Jason Herbert, senior director of external strategy for Energy Northwest.

It also demonstrates the nuclear industry’s long-term commitment to sustainability and environmental stewardship, Schuetz said.

Only about 4% at most of the energy value of commercial nuclear fuel is used by the time it is removed from reactors, McGinnis said.

“We really think used fuel is a potential asset in the future,” Herbert said.

Curio plans to remove more than uranium from spent fuel in commercial reactors.

More plans for spent fuel

It is also pursuing plans to eliminate isotopes for medical use. Radioactive isotopes have medical uses ranging from cancer treatments to imaging.

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Energy Northwest has 54 concrete and steel storage cylinders stored near Richland, Washington, to hold spent fuel from the Columbia power plant. Courtesy of Power Northwest

There are also deletion opportunities for other isotopes used by industry, used to power deep space missions and which could eventually be useful for new fission-based batteries.

McGinnis estimates that at least 96% of the highly radioactive material in the spent fuel would be removed for useful purposes.

And unlike the processes used at the Hanford site just north of Richland to chemically separate plutonium for the country’s nuclear weapons program, large amounts of waste would not be generated by the Curio process, he said. declared.

Energy Northwest also sees an opportunity with Curio to reduce the nation’s reliance on fuel from foreign sources.

Some American commercial power plants have used uranium from Russia, although the Columbia power plant is not one of them.

“The more that supply chain and those resources can be based domestically, the more secure that supply chain is,” Herbert said.

One of the reasons the United States has not recycled nuclear fuel is the fear of nuclear proliferation.

McGinnis said the Curio process will have the strongest possible proliferation barriers. Plutonium that could be used for weapons would remain mixed with highly radioactive materials as a self-protection measure, he said.

Curio, which has not yet chosen a site for its fuel recycling plant, estimates that its plant could be operational in 12 years.

With Energy Northwest as an early partner, recycled fuel will be optimized for its fuel needs, McGinnis said.

Energy Northwest is now interested in fuel for the Columbia power plant, if the Curio process proves successful, but McGinnis said Curio will also produce recycled fuel for new advanced nuclear reactors.

In 2021, Energy Northwest signed an agreement with X-energy and Grant County PUD to develop, build, and operate an advanced nuclear reactor on land leased by Energy Northwest from Hanford.

This story was originally published July 18, 2022 11:58 a.m.

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Senior Writer Annette Cary covers Hanford, energy, environment, science and health for the Tri-City Herald. She was a journalist for over 30 years in the Pacific Northwest.

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