Clean Technology

Fast Nuclear Reactors: Closing the Nuclear Fuel Cycle


Fast nuclear reactor technology and processes for turning nuclear waste into energy might not feature highly on the agenda of many ESG investors now, but they soon could. The ongoing conflict in Europe has forced governments to rethink their energy strategies, and many countries are once again considering nuclear power as a part of a balanced energy portfolio. In fact, the European Union labeled nuclear as a “green” energy in July.

The International Energy Agency estimates that global nuclear power capacity will have to double by 2050 for the world to reach carbon neutrality. The nuclear accidents at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979, Chernobyl in 1986, and Fukushima in 2011 have discouraged many countries from building nuclear power stations. However, the US, China, and France are working with new reactors that use uranium more effectively and pledge to be safer than their older versions.

One type—the fast reactor—even offers a potential solution to nuclear waste, addressing another common sticking point to wider adoption and public support.

Recycling Nuclear Waste

One of the most significant innovations driving the latest generation of plants is the very real possibility that they will be able to utilize recycled nuclear fuel. Light-water reactors use nuclear fission powered by uranium-235 fuel to split the nucleus of an atom into smaller nuclei and release energy. However, the process leaves a large amount of energy potential available in the residue.

Fast nuclear reactor technology reuses this residue. This process has been available for more than 50 years, but its prevalence largely fizzled out along with support for nuclear power. Now, the concept has seen a revival as well as new innovations to confront energy demands, attracting major new investment.

Earlier this year, the US Department of Energy announced up to $48 million in funding for a new program that could recycle used nuclear fuel to produce what are known as feedstocks—raw, unprocessed materials that can be used in other reactions or advanced reactor fuel itself. The Converting UNF Radioisotopes Into Energy (CURIE) program will be run by the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E).

The initial focus of this strategy for turning waste into energy in the nuclear sector will center on overcoming challenges in the reprocessing technology as well as monitoring the design of the facilities that house these processes. ARPA-E’s aim is to introduce systems that are also economically more efficient.

One of the most significant innovations driving the latest generation of plants is the very real possibility that they will be able to utilize recycled nuclear fuel.

Securing Safer, Cheaper Nuclear Energy

According to the Idaho National Laboratory (UNL), one of the main US energy research labs, there is enough energy stored in the nuclear waste in the United States to power the whole country for a century using clean energy. “It’s very safe technology. All the basis for the technology has been proven,” says Jess C. Gehin, an associate laboratory director for Nuclear Science & Technology at UNL.

Assuming that it is possible to make reprocessing used nuclear fuel commercially viable, investors may see opportunities as companies move into this space. Considering nuclear to be renewable energy will probably continue to be controversial, but the growing pressure to steer away from fossil fuels quickly and advancements in technology—nuclear fusion included—could enhance its appeal.

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