Nuclear fusion concept art

Nuclear waste energy could power the US for a century, scientist says

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There is enough energy in the nuclear waste in the United States to power the entire country for 100 years with clean energy, according to Jess C. Gehin from the Idaho National Laboratory.

Scientists have long known the potential of nuclear fast reactors, which turn nuclear waste into energy. However, although the technology was proven in a US government pilot that took place between the 1960s and 1990s, it was never deemed profitable enough to be commercialised, until now.

According to Jess C. Gehin - an associate laboratory director at Idaho National Laboratory, one of the government’s premier energy research labs - current levels of nuclear waste in the US could produce enough energy to power the entire country for 100 years. The technology would not only help alleviate the current energy crisis, but also solve the difficult challenge of managing nuclear waste.

The 2015 Paris Agreement, coupled with the recent rapid rise in energy costs, are driving the development of new and carbon-neutral energy sources. As a result, nuclear fast reactors are once again attracting serious attention.

“It feels like it’s real - or realer - than it has ever has been to me,” said Brett Rampal, a nuclear energy expert, speaking to CNBC.

At the moment there are 93 commercial nuclear reactors at 55 operating sites in the United States, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Twenty-six are at some stage of the decommissioning process and all of them produce radioactive waste that needs to be carefully discarded. 

Currently, there are around 80,000 metric tonnes of used fuel from light-water nuclear reactors in the United States and the existing nuclear fleet produces approximately 2,000 additional tons of used fuel each year. 

“We use a half a per cent of the energy that’s in the uranium that’s dug out of the ground,” Gehin told CNBC. “You can get a large fraction of that energy if you were to recycle the fuel through fast reactors.”

Fast reactors don’t slow down the neutrons that are released in the fission reaction and faster neutrons beget more efficient fission reactions as they can more effectively convert uranium-238, which is predominantly what’s in spent fuel, to plutonium for the fission process.

The technology for fast nuclear reactors has existed for more than fifty years. A fast reactor plant called the Experimental Breeder Reactor-II operated from 1964 to 1994, until the US Congress discontinued the funding.

“It’s been proven that it can be done,” Gehin said. “The trick would be going to commercial scale to ensure that it is done economically. It’s very safe technology. All the basis for the technology has been proven.”

Russia is the only country globally producing electricity with fast reactor technology, although India and China also have plans to build commercial fast reactors in the future.

In 2019, the US Department of Energy announced it was building its own fast-spectrum test reactor, but that project is yet to receive financing. By not having a pilot test facility in the US for almost 30 years, the country is “effectively yielding leadership to Russia, China and India who have this critical capability,” the Office of Nuclear Energy said in a written statement issued last month.

While the government is moving slowly, the private sector has already seen the potential in this type of energy. TerraPower says it is investing in supply chains and working with policymakers to build political support, while Oklo has received three government awards and is planning to commercialise fast reactor fuel supply chains domestically.

However, before nuclear waste can be used to power fast reactors, it has to go through reprocessing. Right now, only Russia has the capacity to do this at scale, while the Idaho National Lab can only reprocess enough fuel for research and development purposes. 

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