Irradiated nuclear fuel management: resource versus waste

K. L. N A S H, Washington State University, USA and G. J. LUMETTA and J. D. VIENNA, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, USA

DOI: 10.1533/9780857097446.1.145

Abstract: Management of irradiated fuel is an important component of commercial nuclear power production. Although it is broadly agreed that the disposition of some fraction of the fuel in geological repositories will be necessary, each of the fuel cycle options (once-through, limited recycle, advanced partitioning and transmutation, fuel breeders) introduces distinct waste management challenges. The choice of options significantly affects what fraction of material will be disposed in what manner. To further complicate this question, until geological repositories are available to accept commercial irradiated fuel, these materials must be safely stored. This chapter discusses some of these options.

Key words: nuclear fuel cycle, Yucca Mountain, waste forms, separations, partitioning.

5.1 Introduction

Nuclear power accounts for 22% of global electricity generating capacity (NEA, 2010). It is anticipated that nuclear power will continue to supply approximately 20% of the world’s electricity through at least 2035. Accord­ing to the World Nuclear Association, ‘A typical 1000 MWe light water reactor will generate (directly and indirectly) 200-350 m3 low — and interme­diate-level waste per year. It will also discharge about 20 m3 (27 tonnes) of used fuel per year, which corresponds to a 75 m3 disposal volume following encapsulation if it is treated as waste. Where that used fuel is reprocessed, only 3 m3 of vitrified waste (glass) is produced, which is equivalent to a 28 m3 disposal volume following placement in a disposal canister’ (World Nuclear Association, 2011). These estimates will vary depending on the degree of separation applied in the reprocessing and other factors. The worldwide inventory of existing (as of 2009) irradiated fuel resulting from nuclear power production is 165,390 metric tons, and the annual production rate in 2009 was approximately 7,300 metric tons (NEA, 2010). This rate of irradi­ated fuel production is expected to continue (and in all likelihood will


increase) through 2035. Managing this highly radioactive material poses significant challenges to the nuclear power industry and to human society.

Emplacement in deep geological repositories is commonly accepted as the best option for disposing of the waste components of irradiated fuel. However, no repositories suitable for accepting irradiated fuel from power reactors exist. Furthermore, establishing the location of geological reposi­tories is difficult both technically and politically, as illustrated by the US experience with the planned repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. Thus for the foreseeable future, utilities will continue to store the irradiated fuel at the reactor sites. There is also some debate as to whether irradiated power reactor fuel should be viewed as simply waste (as in the once — through fuel cycle), or as a resource (closed or partially-closed fuel cycle). This chapter will address these issues as they relate to the management of commercial irradiated (also termed spent or used) fuel.

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