Atoms: Get more from your fuel

September 27, 2023, 5:57AMNuclear News

From the pages of the September 2023 issue of Nuclear News.

For decades, more energy has meant more fuel: fossil fuels.

But nuclear fuel—unlike coal, oil, or even natural uranium—is a feat of engineering, not a commodity extracted from the earth. Now, “more” means more engineering—to boost uranium density or to close the fuel cycle.

The good old days?

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Share of U.S. energy consumption, by source (1775–2022). (Data: U.S. Energy Information Administration)

Before the “age of steam” (and not that long ago), wood provided almost all of the energy consumed in the United States, according to Energy Information Administration statistics. When the nation was founded in 1776, energy consumption amounted to about a quarter of one percent of the total energy consumed in 2022 (100.4 quads, or quadrillion [1015] Btus).

Fossil fuel extraction fueled increased consumption, which in turn fueled demand for extraction. Burning of coal, then petroleum, then natural gas surged until fossil fuels provided over 93 percent of U.S. energy in the 1960s, before nuclear power started to make inroads.

Level up

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A Framatome fuel assembly with GAIA Protect enhanced accident tolerant fuel. (Photo: Framatome)

Congress funded an Accident Tolerant Fuel program in 2012 in response to the Fukushima Daiichi incident, seeking results within a decade. The goal: to develop enhanced fuels and cladding for light water reactors and insert a lead test assembly into a commercial reactor by the end of fiscal year 2022. In fact, the three leading U.S. fuel vendors—Framatome, GE-led Global Nuclear Fuel, and Westinghouse—all exceeded expectations by meeting that goal in 2019, three years ahead of schedule.

The Accident Tolerant Fuel program is still at work, now with a new goal: to deploy batch reloads of accident tolerant fuels by the mid-2020s.

Inexhaustible? No.

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“The utility man will not build at all in 1970 unless he is assured of fuel for the reactor’s life.” That’s according to a 1962 report on civilian nuclear power presented by the Atomic Energy Commission to President John F. Kennedy. According to analysis published in the December 1962 issue of Nuclear News, the report paints “an encouraging picture for the nuclear power industry” but “soon turns to another theme, one that had not previously been given much prominence. This is simply that U.S. supplies of uranium are not the inexhaustible source that people had been in the habit of thinking.”

The AEC commissioners predicted widespread use of breeder reactors by around 1980, and they made two assumptions about raw materials. First, that “the U.S. will be dependent on its own uranium and thorium” because “other countries in the world will be using their own resources for their own needs and the U.S. could not rely on importing fuel.” Second, that fuel availability would determine whether the “utility man” builds.

As calls for HALEU supply from advanced reactor developers show, fuel availability is still critically important. But 1962 estimates of future energy demand have not held true. Total energy consumption in 2020 was less than half what was predicted in 1962 (about .215 Q units, or quintillion [1018] Btus). As shown in this figure from the report, reproduced in NN, nuclear energy was expected to provide over three-quarters of U.S. electricity—and about 40 percent of all energy—by 2020.

Recycling on demand

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Source: T. K. Kim et al., “Report on fuel cycle facility requirements for deployment of demonstration reactors and potential evolutionary fuel cycle scenarios,” U.S. DOE Systems Analysis and Integration, ANL/NSE-22/39, ANS Annual Meeting, Indianapolis, Ind., June 13, 2023.

If the United States started recycling nuclear fuel in 2051, how could that impact the demand for natural uranium? Taek K. Kim of Argonne National Laboratory presented data to answer that question during the 2023 American Nuclear Society Annual Meeting session “Growing Nuclear Fuel and Equipment Supply Chains on the Path to Net Zero.”

The Department of Energy’s Systems Analysis and Integration Campaign assumes that about 250 GWe of nuclear generation will be required in 2050 to achieve a net-zero-emissions economy and about 340 GWe in 2100, Kim explained. By 2050, annual natural uranium demand will increase about 2.8 times above 2020 levels to support increased generation. In 2100, demand would depend on recycling, increasing to about 66,000 metric tons per year in a once-through fuel cycle, or dropping to about 29,000 tons per year if recycling begins in 2051.

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