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Nuclear Notes - Thursday, Dec. 2, 2022

Matthew Wald

Lots of Good Ideas, But We'll Have to Choose from Among Them

In 2020, Congress, facing a blossoming of ideas for advanced reactors, ordered the National Academy of Sciences to produce a report to explain which fuel cycle—e.g., high-assay low-enriched uranium, uranium-plutonium mixed oxide fuel, fuel in molten salt, fuel encapsulated in “pebbles,” and so on—was the best. Now the academy has issued a lengthy report, written by a panel that included some prominent nuclear skeptics, that describes “a vast array of concepts.” The panel didn’t pick a winner, but it did make several interesting points.

One is about the need for recycling. Many engineers have called for recycling spent fuel, now thought of by much of the public as nuclear waste, but which nevertheless contains lots of useful materials, like plutonium and unburned uranium. Some advanced reactors, using “fast” neutrons, can consume a lot of those materials, unlike today’s reactors. But the academy said that using those materials isn’t essential. Following the current method (manufacturing uranium fuel, using it once, and then storing it for disposal) is “compatible with the projected available uranium resources,” meaning that its re-use is less essential. And spent fuel is hard to steal and hard to turn into weapons, it noted.

And spent fuel is hard to steal and hard to turn into weapons, it noted, making its re-use less essential.

The study also predicted that there are more technologies under development today than will actually make it across the finish line, and into commercial service. “Budget limitations will require the U.S. Department of Energy to make difficult decisions about its advanced reactor research and development programs to guarantee support, via industry cost-sharing, for a few promising advanced reactor technologies and associated fuel cycle infrastructure in the next several years,” it said. (Emphasis in the original.) The report did not even mention the long-debated (and currently unfunded) Versatile Test Reactor, a facility that the DOE would like to build to help reactor developers test components for advanced models, using heavier-than-normal neutron flows to simulate years of aging. But it said that Congress and the Energy Department “need to provide or assure access to materials testing and fuel qualification capabilities essential to advancing these technologies.”

And whatever new fuel cycle technologies are adopted, we will still need a disposal site for nuclear waste, the study said. The job of finding such a site should be turned over to “a single-mission entity with responsibility for the management and disposal of nuclear wastes,” and the money collected from utilities for disposal of the wastes, now about $45 billion, should be available for spending as needed, without going to Congress for annual appropriations.

The collection of fees from the utilities was suspended in 2013. The fees were supposed to cover the costs of the waste disposal program, but the utilities sued, saying that because Yucca Mountain was stalled, there was no actual program. A court agreed. The new report says that the program, and the fees, should re-start.

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Happy Birthday to the Nuclear Age

It began 80 years ago, on December. 2, 1942, in a squash racquets court at the University of Chicago.

Physicists had split the atom before but didn’t quite understand what they’d done. This was the first controlled chain reaction.

Construction of the reactor, a pile of graphite blocks, was conducted by workers, students, and scientists in 12-hour shifts. The process took 15 days. The reactor was air-cooled, and its operation was confirmed by readings on a Geiger counter.

One reason it was possible to build the whole rig in just over two weeks is that Professor Arthur Holly Compton, who led the project, did not stop to ask permission from the university president. According to a University of Chicago account, Compton decided that the president, a former Law School dean, “was in no position to make an independent judgment of the hazards involved.”

The first reactor was part of the Manhattan Project, the wartime effort to beat the Germans to a nuclear weapon. The first reactor to produce electricity was almost exactly nine years later, on December 20, 1951, when the Experimental Breeder Reactor-I started up on a government reservation in Idaho.

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Weakening Russia’s Nuclear Energy Grip on its Neighbors

Finland has two Soviet-built reactors, VVER-440 models, and is locked into agreements to have Russia fuel them for their initial license period, 50 years. But when those licenses expire, in 2027 and 2030, the government-owned operator, Fortum, is preparing to bring in fuel from Westinghouse.

“The new and parallel fuel supplier will diversify our fuel strategy, improve security of supply and ensure reliable electricity production,” said Sasu Valkamo, Vice President, in a press release.

Finland has five reactors in operation, including Olkiluoto 3, a French model. The country is a pioneer in high-level nuclear waste disposal; it expects to open a deep geologic repository for spent fuel in the mid-2020s.

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