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January 13th, 2010

Recycling nuclear waste at Argonne National Lab

Published on January 13th, 2010 | By: pwray@ceramics.org


This video, produced by the Science Channel with the assistance of Argonne National Lab, discusses some of the work being done to perfect closed-cycle “fast” nuclear reactors. Nearly all reactors used for energy production are based on a light-water reactor model that are inefficient (fuel rods must be replaced after only 5% of the uranium-235 has been used) and create wastes with very long half lives.

Instead of using water, fast reactors employ a coolant – typically liquid sodium – that doesn’t slow down neutrons. The resulting “fast” neutrons have less tendency to be captured by uranium atoms and be converted to plutonium or higher actinides.

ANL’s fast reactors treat spent reactor fuel not as waste but as a rich source of recycled energy. Because they permit the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel, fast reactors can operate through what is known as the “closed fuel cycle,” which dramatically increases the efficiency of uranium use and minimizes the discharge of plutonium and minor actinides as waste. A closed fuel cycle could – at least theoretically – use 90 percent of the energy available in uranium.

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One Response to Recycling nuclear waste at Argonne National Lab

  1. Karl (Bud) Spear says:

    I was excited to see that this type of research is being done. During the late 1960’s, we (at ORNL) were working on fast reactor fuels (Pu-fuels with U-238 that was being converted to Pu-239 during the fissioning of Pu-239. A problem was the influence of the created fission products on the compatibility of the fuel with its container material. We modeled the chemistry of what was happening during the fuel life-time, and patented chemical compositions that would keep the fuel from becoming too oxygen rich so that the fuel would not oxidize its container materials. However, fast reactor fuels were never put into use, and the nuclear waste problem has persisted. In addition to Argonne’s work, we still need to solve the storage problems for the waste dating from World War II and beyond.

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