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Reusing nuclear fuel 'could cut costs of new power stations'

Reusing Britain’s spent nuclear fuel could cut more than £5bn off the costs of new power stations, according to a new report.

Former chief scientific adviser Sir David King yesterday urged the government to treat used nuclear fuel stocks as a resource, because the net costs of recycling them would be much less than safely disposing of them and using new fuel.

Adopting a more holistic strategy to nuclear material would tackle concerns over the security of energy supply, rising oil prices and safety issues, according to the report by King and Oxford University’s Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment.

‘The renaissance in new nuclear build creates an advantageous way of using these legacy materials as fuel for new nuclear power plants,’ said King.

‘Despite the terrible events in Japan, the economic, safety and carbon case for a new-build programme in the UK has never been stronger.

‘Our report evaluates scenarios that would reduce cost to the taxpayer and create billions of pounds of economic opportunity through new skills and jobs, as well as reducing carbon emissions and increasing energy security and safety.

‘The potential benefits of examining nuclear materials and spent fuel stocks as a potential asset and managing these alongside new-build reactors, through an all-encompassing UK nuclear power policy, are clarified through this investigation.’

Stockpiles

The UK has a stock of separated plutonium that is expected to reach 100 tonnes in coming years, as well as uranium and 6,000 tonnes of heavy metal produced by advanced gas reactors (AGRs). Current policy is to store this fuel until it can be disposed of after 2075.

But last month, the government began a consultation on the management of plutonium stocks, and a Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) spokesperson told The Engineer that reusing spent fuel was one of the preferred options being considered.

‘There are currently no final plans for how the UK’s plutonium should be managed in the long term. That is why we are consulting to develop a coherent and comprehensive plan for dealing with the issue,’ said the spokesperson.

‘As part of this exercise, we are keen to assess all the options for affordability, deliverability, value for money, safety and security.’

Uneconomical

Spent nuclear fuel has not been reused in the past because some elements of it are so difficult to deal with that the whole process has been considered uneconomical, said Paul Norman from Birmingham University’s Centre for Nuclear Education and Research.

‘It is typically better not to reuse some of the material in spent fuel, as it can be expensive to get it into the right state to reuse and… some of the waste arising from it… inhibits the chain reactions — making the reactor a bit less effective,’ he said.

Recycling the UK’s plutonium — the biggest civil stocks in the world — would make good sense and offer great potential savings, but would require a decision from high up in the government, added Norman.

The Smith School report looked at a number of scenarios, contrasting the high costs of storing and disposing of new and future waste against the higher costs of building and running recycling plants and the gains made from selling the fuel.

It found that recycling the plutonium and uranium and the continued reprocessing of spent AGR fuel from domestic and foreign sources would provide cumulative net costs that were more than £5bn less than treating the spent fuel as waste.

This scenario would involve building a new metal oxide (MOX) plant to treat the plutonium and refurbishing the UK’s existing thermal oxide reprocessing plant (THORP) at Sellafield to reprocess the AGR fuel.

It would also have the greatest dependence on commercial arrangements and so carry the greatest commercial risk, as well as needing a strategic reason for contracting reprocessing services to UK and overseas companies.

MOX

While France has successfully manufactured MOX fuel, the UK’s experience has been much less positive, according to the government’s consultation document. The Sellafield MOX plant has produced less than three per cent of its target fuel amount.

‘However, any new MOX plant will be developed in light of the design and operational lessons drawn from these differing experiences overseas and in the UK,’ said the consultation document.

Despite criticisms of the Sellafield plant, there is positive feeling towards the technology and the report has been welcomed by organisations including the CBI and the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC).

Dr Brian Carter, environmental sciences programme manager at the RSC, said the report’s recommendations would go a long way to addressing the problems of security supply and waste disposal.

‘The technology outlined in the report will enable the UK to be self-sufficient in fuel for nuclear power for at least the next 60 years, leading to an improvement in the security of energy supply for the country,’ he added.

‘In addition, the recommendations in the report, if implemented, could lead to a £10bn boost in the economy of the north west of the UK, while creating around 45,000 new high-tech jobs over the next 20–30 years.’


Readers' comments (6)

  • I like the idea of recycling the fuel, but there is a much safer and cheaper way to harness nuclear power. It involves using THORIUM instead of uranium and while it sounds too good to be true the science is there! Why aren't we using this!?

    There is a great infographic explaining its properties and uses here:
    http://www.rmg-clarity.co.uk/blog/2011/3/21/this-is-our-world-and-we-need-to-look-after-it.html

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  • Thorium is good, but how long will it take to design, build and commission this new molten salt reactor...
    In the meantime you need to do something with the waste nuclear material. Although I believe nuclear waste can be used in Thorium molten salt reactor; but I don't know the validity of this claim

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  • Using the world's largest stock of civilian Plutonium as MOX fuel is like smashing up the Kohinoor diamond to make drill tips. There are many much smarter applications using Small Fusion Reactors, including the breeding of startup fuel for Thorium reactors. As Sir David said, the UK Nuclear industry needs to be refocussed away from burial of all things nuclear.

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  • On Page 22 of the Report: A low carbon nuclear future, is: 'Capital cost assumptions for major plant items', which tots up to £10 billion - £10,000 million.

    I've been at it for months, emailing any MP or Member of the House of Lords showing an interest in new nuclear; I've got little to show for it.

    I've been begging for support to get £300 million allocated to UK manufacture of the first-of-a-kind (FOAK), 100 MWe, Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR). This could easily be achieved in 5 years. Such units can be built on production lines and are transportable on flat-bed trucks. Half a dozen UK companies are capable of manufacturing such (glorified) chemical plant for handling high-temperature salts. We could be at production level in 10 years and well on the way to replacing all of our fossil-fuelled power stations in 15 years; this includes CCGTs, since LFTRs are load-following.

    Please, Prime Minister: before you commit to a low-carbon future via this report, save £millions of our taxes by going the LFTR route.

    The worldwide market for modular LFTRs (say 100 MWe) is in the tens of thousands; think what this would mean for UK manufacturing jobs, growth and prosperity, if we could get in ahead of China. If we don't, the economics of LFTR use, to meet carbon targets, will be so compelling, we'll be importing them from China by the container-ship full.

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  • Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors need a start up charge of fissile material. This is a good use for our Plutonium stocks.

    The term "waste" is a misnomer. Most of the energy is still waiting to be extracted.

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  • I fear that the rate determing step in which reactor type we use in the future are the politicians!
    What should happen is a committee of Scientists, Engineers, economists, and perhaps a token MP and enviromentalist should be asked to tell the government what the plan of action should be, and that is that!

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