Utilities Unbundled 16
Production and asset management
Nuclear: closing the fuel cycle?
Converting nuclear waste into energy could soon become reality – although challenges remain in bringing it to market.
GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy (GEH) has developed a new small modular, sodium-cooled fast nuclear reactor. PRISM (Power Reactor Inherently Safe Module) recycles used nuclear fuel to generate low-carbon electricity. It could help:
- Close the nuclear fuel cycle
- Decrease waste
- Reduce the time that waste has to be stored in a repository to a few hundred years
Current fission reactors use just 1% of the energy in uranium. The new PRISM reactor is capable of extracting close to 99%.
Eric Loewen, the Chief Consulting Engineer at GEH, explains the benefits: “Current fission reactors use just 1% of the energy in uranium. The new PRISM reactor is capable of extracting close to 99% … Not only that, but the resulting waste is much more robust: after 300 years, the waste from PRISM would be less radioactive than, for example, the uranium ore mines in Australia or Canada.”
PRISM uses natural circulation from outside air to remove heat from the reactor vessel and is designed to withstand earthquakes.
Currently being assessed by the UK’s Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, PRISM will need the green light from government before licensing, detailed design, construction and operation can commence. But if all goes to plan, PRISM could be deployed in a UK power plant by 2025.
PRISM complements a “closed” nuclear fuel cycle
Besides the UK, Asia has interest in recycling technologies and India plans to deploy sodium reactors.
Meanwhile, Japan continues to revamp safety measures and is set to restart some of its idled nuclear plants in mid-2014.
The US remains committed to disposing of, or reprocessing, its excess military plutonium, but there is no regulatory environment at present to support a recycling solution in the US.
Impact on nuclear
Today’s priorities for nuclear power are threefold:
- Control costs
- Mitigate the types of risk seen at Fukushima
- Do far more to minimize and resolve the legacy of waste that arises
Small modular reactors, and PRISM in particular, show that the nuclear industry has had these priorities in mind for more than a generation. The technology is neither revolutionary nor unproven. What really sets PRISM apart from other modular reactors is its ability to address the security challenges posed by growing stockpiles of plutonium.
If successfully deployed, PRISM potentially offers a new market for separating plutonium from spent fuel at existing nuclear plants.
But the huge costs involved mean PRISM needs a lead sponsor – either a utility or even a country – willing to commit to dealing with its plutonium and waste stockpile in a way that creates value, rather than simply being a cost of historic programs.
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