From the ashes

A new recycling plant is to be built that will recover enriched uranium from the ashes of contaminated materials.

A new recycling plant will be able to recover enriched uranium from the ashes of contaminated materials.

The recycling process itself is based on the work of University of Idaho chemistry professor Prof Chien Wai, who has developed a means to use supercritical fluids to dissolve toxic metals.

When coupled with a purifying process developed in partnership with Sydney Koegler, an engineer with Areva, enriched uranium can be recovered from the ashes of contaminated materials.

Areva and the university are to share the technologies that will pave the way for the recycling plant’s construction.

Because the technology is so simple, cost-effective and environmentally friendly, Areva is eager to test its first full-scale use on 32 tons of incinerator ash from its facility in Richland, Washington.

The plant there fabricates fuel for commercial nuclear power plants from raw enriched uranium supplied by utility customers as uranium hexafluoride (UF6).

During normal operation, common items, including filters, rags, paper wipes and gloves, become contaminated with uranium. The waste is burned to reduce its volume, making it easier to recover the uranium. Nearly 10 per cent of the ash’s weight is usable enriched uranium, worth about $900 (£482) per pound on today’s market.

The new recycling plant is expected to be operational in 2009 and will take about a year to process Areva’s inventory of ash. When finished, much of its operating time will be devoted to processing ash from other sites.

Prof Wai is now working to make the technology even more environmentally friendly and also to recycle different forms of radioactive waste.