The Department of Energy has announced up to $40 million in funding for a new Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) program to conduct research and development into technologies for reprocessing and ultimately disposing of used nuclear fuel. The program, “Optimizing Nuclear Waste and Advanced Reactor Disposal Systems” (ONWARDS), announced on May 19, targets both open (once-through) and closed (reprocessing) fuel cycles to reduce the amount of waste produced from advanced reactors tenfold when compared to light water reactors.
ARPA-E’s mandate: ONWARDS is ARPA-E’s first foray into advanced reactor used fuel disposal pathways since the agency’s authority was revised in the ARPA-E Reauthorization Act of 2019, adding a charge to “provide transformative solutions to improve the management, cleanup, and disposal of radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel.”
As advanced nuclear reactor technologies move from research and development phases to deployment through the DOE’s Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program, ARPA-E’s ONWARDS program will identify and address challenges at the back end of the fuel cycle before advanced reactors are deployed. ONWARDS will complement ARPA-E’s existing nuclear energy research portfolio, which includes the MEITNER (Modeling-Enhanced Innovations Trailblazing Nuclear Energy Reinvigoration) and GEMINA (Generating Electricity Managed by Intelligent Nuclear Assets) programs.
Expanding nuclear’s potential: Compared to other energy technologies, nuclear power production produces a small volume of waste material in the form of used fuel—about 2,000 metric tons each year. Currently, that fuel is safely stored at plant sites and awaits disposition in a long-term geological repository. Advanced reactors have been proposed that would use a variety of non-light-water coolants and fuel forms.
“The future deployment of advanced reactors will ensure that the U.S. meets its goals of greenhouse gas reduction and facilitates U.S. energy security and global thought leadership in advanced nuclear energy,” the program description states, adding that “challenges associated with disposal pathways of waste threaten the development and deployment of the next generation of advanced reactors.”
“More than half of our zero-carbon energy is generated from nuclear power, and through this groundbreaking research we can expand nuclear’s potential,” said Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm. “America is an innovation leader, and DOE is proud to invest in the next generation of nuclear energy technologies that will power the nation and protect our environment.”
Research scope: The goal of ONWARDS is to support the development of technologies that address significant challenges to closing the back end of advanced reactor nuclear fuel cycles, while proactively mitigating the disposal impact of used fuel with integrated nonproliferation safeguards. ONWARDS metrics include an order-of-magnitude reduction in advanced reactor waste volume generation or repository footprint compared to light water nuclear reactors, better than 1 percent fissile-mass accountancy in reprocessing streams, development of high-performance waste forms for a variety of potential deep-geological repositories and disposal concepts, and costs in the range of $1/megawatt-hour.
ONWARDS teams will work in three key areas:
- Process: Improvements in fuel recycling that significantly minimize waste volumes, improve intrinsic proliferation resistance, increase resource use, and bolster advanced reactor commercialization.
- Safeguards: Improvements in sensor and data fusion technologies that enable accurate and timely accounting of nuclear materials.
- Waste form: Development of high-performance waste forms for all advanced reactor classes, with an emphasis on those forms that span multiple reactor classes and disposal environments and are safe and stable over required timescales.
Versatile solutions wanted: The funding opportunity announcement provides additional details. ONWARDS addresses both open and closed fuel cycles to capture the widest range of likely fuel cycles and to proactively mitigate the disposal impact of waste streams, waste forms, safety, and security issues. The assumption is that wastes from the back end of the fuel cycle would ultimately be disposed of in geological repositories.
ARPA-E notes in the funding opportunity announcement that concepts that address three advanced reactor fuel cycles—TRISO fuel, metallic fuel, and molten salt fuel—are “presently considered most promising.” However, other fuel cycle technologies may also be supported, including technologies that are also compatible with commercial LWR fuel cycle wastes.
Funding awards: ARPA-E expects to make approximately $40 million available for new awards, subject to the availability of appropriated funds. Individual cost-share awards may have a federal share varying between $250,000 and $10 million. ARPA-E expects the start date for funding agreements to be April 2022, or as negotiated.