Michele Kearney's Nuclear Wire

Major Energy and Environmental News and Commentary affecting the Nuclear Industry.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

FCWMD - Nuclear Grand Challenges

Dear ANS FCWMD Members,
First of all, I am enormously impressed at the FCWMD member participation in the ANS Nuclear Grand Challenges project.  You generated many creative and timely suggestions for Fuel Cycle and Waste Management Grand Challenges.  Ultimately FCWMD received approximately 50 grand challenge suggestions which spoke volumes about the clever ideas and relevant interests of our membership.  The FCWMD Executive Committee and its ad-hoc Grand Challenges Committee reviewed, thematically combined, and down selected from among your many suggestions.  I would like to share with you the three final FCWMD grand challenges that we have submitted for consideration as ANS National Level Grand Challenges.  They follow below.
Kathryn Huff

Chair, FCWMD
Assistant Professor, Nuclear Plasma, and Radiological Engineering
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

FCWMD-1:  Establish used nuclear fuel recycling associated with the "most promising" fuel cycles that are economically competitive with current electric production (e.g., traditional nuclear energy, natural gas, coal, renewable energy, etc.).
This is the core challenge for the deployment of advanced recycling and advanced reactors.  Without economic competitiveness, fuel recycling schemes and advanced reactor technologies cannot be leveraged toward improvements in the sustainability of nuclear power production.  Some promising recycling schemes have the potential to offer improved fuel utilization and reduce waste burden, among other metrics.  However, such schemes are non-starters without economic competitiveness on today's electricity grid.  This grand challenge seeks technical solutions which improve the economic competitiveness of promising fuel cycles in the context of the current and future electricity generation market.  The "most promising" fuel cycles in this grand challenge are those fuel cycle families identified in the Fuel Cycle Options Nuclear Fuel Cycle Evaluation and Screening Study report series (fuelcycleevaluation.inl.gov) as "most promising."  This evaluation and screening work evaluated the breadth of fuel cycle options available in the context of nine evaluation metrics (waste management, proliferation risk, material security risk, safety, environmental impact, resource utilization, development and deployment risk, institutional issues, and financial risk/economics).

FCWMD-2 & NISD:  Leverage the findings of the U.S. Department of Energy's (USDOE) Evaluation and Screening Study to reconsider the U.S. approach to the whole nuclear fuel cycle, and publicly establish the "most promising" nuclear fuel cycles and address some of the stretched "truths" about some fuel cycles (e.g., thorium fuel cycle being simpler, safer, and more secure to implement).
The current approach to the U.S. nuclear fuel cycle was formulated for reasons that are less convincing to many than they may have seemed generations ago.  This has left the nuclear industry highly vulnerable to a stalled nuclear waste disposal pathway.  The USDOE's Evaluation and Screening Study identified a number of "most promising" nuclear fuel cycles worth researching and implementing.  The practical reality of some fuel cycles and technologies has been stretched in the public sphere (both positively and negatively).  A key example is the popular public narrative that thorium fuel cycles are simpler, safer, and more secure to implement than any uranium or plutonium alternative.
While this assessment has seeds of truth, some public narratives have stretched the magnitude of the comparative metrics and fail to recognize practical realities:  that not all thorium fuel cycles are created equally, or that some uranium or plutonium fuel cycles outperform thorium fuel cycles on these metrics, etc.  This grand challenge can be answered by robust technical analysis and demonstrations which publicly establish more objective assessment of the promise of fuel cycle options.
In some cases, the relative technological superiority of particular technologies has been exaggerated.  In other cases, relatively promising technologies have not garnered the support and attention appropriate to match their promise.  The technical effort to securely establish the objective reality of relative benefits and drawbacks among fuel cycle options has begun with the Nuclear Fuel Cycle Evaluation and Screening Study.  Leveraging the results of that study to drive technical analysis will establish and demonstrate the benefits of the "most promising" fuel cycles.  The impact will be more appropriate allocation of research and development funding, public expectations, and improved public awareness.

FCWMD-3:  Establish a logical incremental timeline toward a pilot and full-scale recycling facility (including consolidation, dry and wet storage, dry and wet transfer/repackaging facilities, etc.) for current reactors, and transition to future reactors from the "most promising" fuel cycles.
Incremental goals are essential to the success of grander goals.  If more promising fuel cycles are to be implemented on a reasonable time scale, the recycling facilities to support them must be in the planning stages today.  For this grand challenge, simply identifying a possible timeline is not sufficient.  Simple timelines have historically been very optimistic.  A realistic timeline, with detailed incremental milestones, based in practical technical logic, is needed for a domestic recycling capability to be a feasible goal. Without such a timeline, targeted at the concrete details of the most promising fuel cycles, no progress can be made.  Note that "most promising" fuel cycles, in this context, refer to those fuel cycle technology families identified as "most promising" by the Department of Energy (DOE) Nuclear Fuel Cycle Evaluation and Screening Study (fuelcycleevaluation.inl.gov).

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