Plans announced for pilot US nuclear fuel recycling plant

01 March 2024

Orano USA and SHINE Technologies have signed a Memorandum of Understanding to cooperate on the development of a US pilot plant with commercial-scale technology for recycling used nuclear fuel from light water reactors.

Orano CEO Nicolas Maes (left) and SHINE Technologies founder and CEO Greg Piefer after signing the MoU (Image: Orano)

Site selection for the pilot facility is expected by the end of this year. The pilot plant concept - expected to recycle 100 tonnes per year of used nuclear fuel, extracting 99% of usable uranium and plutonium - will validate commercial-scale aqueous recycling with integrated non-proliferation measures.

The system is based on SHINE's proven critical separation technology and Orano's methods in operation at its La Hague facility in France, where more than 40,000 tonnes of used nuclear fuel have been reprocessed.

The recovered nuclear material can be made into new fuel for advanced and existing reactor designs, along with using certain critical isotopes for medical and industrial purposes.

"This MoU aligns two innovative companies in the single pursuit of recycling 100 metric tons a year of used nuclear fuel into a valuable resource," said Orano CEO Nicolas Maes. "For this initiative with SHINE, we bring more than 55 years of experience transporting and recycling used nuclear fuel in France and managing used fuel in the US."

"Our goal is to stand up an operational pilot facility by the early 2030s," added SHINE Technologies founder and CEO Greg Piefer. "While this is challenging, our track record with the Chrysalis facility shows that we know how to navigate the complex design, regulatory, and build aspects of 10 CFR part 50 nuclear facilities and do so cost-effectively. The lessons learned in the execution of that project are directly applicable to waste recycling, and uniquely position us for timely delivery on this important national priority.

"This agreement for closing the nuclear fuel cycle launches our company’s planned Phase 3 business along our path to ultimately achieving commercialised fusion energy."

SHINE's Chrysalis production facility, currently under construction in Janesville, Wisconsin, has a goal of creating the largest dedicated medical isotope production capacity in the world. At full capacity, it will produce nearly half of the global demand for molybdenum-99. A second facility planned in Veendam, the Netherlands, is expected to have a similar capacity.

This initial agreement between Orano and SHINE is seen as a first step in a broader coalition of companies focused on developing a national used nuclear fuel recycling industry.

"Two of the biggest challenges for increasing carbon-free nuclear energy are waste disposal and cost," the partners said. "This coalition aims to play a leading role in providing a cost-effective solution to nuclear energy growth by recycling and reusing used nuclear fuel, and by transforming long-lived radioactive waste into shorter-lived or stable materials."

Used nuclear fuel still contains more than 90% of its energy capacity when it is removed from the reactor. Globally, a few countries have chosen to recycle used fuel in what is termed a 'closed fuel cycle'. Although the USA originally developed the technology and began recycling used nuclear fuel in 1963, the programme ceased operation in 1972. Since then, the USA has an 'open fuel cycle', with used nuclear fuel stored in interim facilities at operating or closed nuclear reactor sites around the country for eventual disposal as waste in a future permanent geologic repository.

"Recycling used nuclear fuel into useful products will significantly reduce the mass, volume, and toxicity of the remaining nuclear material for permanent disposal," according to Orano and SHINE. "By helping to solve the used fuel problem, this coalition's new recycling programme will help fission nuclear energy grow and deliver carbon-free energy faster."

"It is time for the US to seriously consider recycling used nuclear fuel," said Orano USA CEO Jean-Luc Palayer. "Working together, SHINE and Orano will extract the valuable material for use in critical industrial applications and in creating new nuclear fuels for existing reactors and future advanced reactors."

Researched and written by World Nuclear News