US project to recycle naval fuel gets Senate approval

22 June 2018

The US Senate has approved a proposal for a USD15 million pilot programme to recycle used naval nuclear fuel for use as fuel in advanced nuclear reactors. The proposal - an amendment to the fiscal 2019 Energy and Water Appropriations Bill - was adopted by the full Senate by 87 votes to 9.

Low-enriched uranium (LEU) fuel used in today's nuclear power plants typically contains less than 5% of fissile uranium-235 (U-235), but many of the advanced reactor designs currently under development will require uranium fuel enriched to between 5% and 20% U-235, known as high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU) fuel. Nuclear submarines use highly enriched uranium (HEU).

Used nuclear fuel retains much of its fissile content, and the project would aim to demonstrate the blending down of used HEU fuel from the USA's naval programme to produce useable HALEU. Such a project could potentially reduce the amounts of nuclear waste from the naval programme requiring disposal.

Amendment 2943 was proposed by Senators Mike Crapo and James Risch of Idaho and Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island. A site at the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) has been earmarked for the construction of a NuScale small modular reactor. The INL has also been identified as a possible site for Terrestrial Energy's Integral Molten Salt Reactor.

Current operating naval reactors have the potential to create a total of 100,000 tons of used nuclear fuel, for which disposal will cost about USD100 billion, Crapo told the Senate on 20 June. Advanced nuclear reactors could potentially reuse this and to reduce the overall disposal cost, he said.

"HEU repurposing, from materials like spent naval fuel, can be done using hybrid processes that use advanced dry head-end technologies followed by material recovery, which creates the fuel for our new advanced reactors. Repurposing this spent fuel has the potential of reducing waste that would otherwise be disposed of at taxpayer expense, and approximately 1 metric ton of HEU can create 4 useable tons for our new reactors," Crapo told the Senate.

"By reusing spent fuel to power advanced reactors, we can supply the inputs necessary for critical research initiatives, such as those at the INL, and provide a cost-saving and environmental service by reducing the amount of spent waste otherwise stored or cleaned up," Crapo said after the vote.

Risch said he was "confident" that the INL would "pioneer the next generation" of nuclear reactors. "As we look ahead, there is bipartisan agreement that the use of clean, nuclear power should be part of our 'all-of-the-above' American energy strategy,"

There are currently no US-based facilities that can produce HALEU on a commercial scale, and the US Nuclear Energy Institute earlier this year warned that preparations should begin now to develop a national fuel cycle infrastructure to support the operation of the advanced reactors. "The industry and the government should work in an integrated manner to establish within the next decade the infrastructure to produce HALEU material and fabricate HALEU fuel for the next generation of advanced reactors and for advanced LWR fuel for the current fleet," NEI Senior Director for New Plant, SMRs and Advanced Reactors Michael Tschiltz said in February.

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News