Researchers at New Mexico State University are teaming up with two national labs and TerraPower, an energy company co-founded by Bill Gates, to develop a method to recycle spent nuclear fuel. The method will prevent the fuel from being used for weaponry but will help sustainably power electricity needs.
“(Nuclear power) offers many advantages, but one of its disadvantages is the production of radioactive waste,” said Paul Andersen, NMSU associate professor of chemical and materials engineering. “Most of the material that comes out of the nuclear power plant still contains considerable energy which cannot be used because of the buildup of radioactive materials. So, we are proposing a process to recycle that nuclear waste and reuse it to obtain more energy and possibly make it easier to dispose of what waste remains.”
Andersen and Cory Windorff, NMSU assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry, are joining TerraPower, Idaho National Lab, and Savannah River National Lab on a three-year project funded by an $8.5 million grant from the Department of Energy Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E). The funding is part of the ARPA-E Optimizing Nuclear Waste and Advanced Reactor Disposal Systems (ONWARDS) program, which seeks to increase the deployment, and use of, nuclear power as a reliable source of clean energy while limiting the amount of waste produced from advanced nuclear reactors.
Andersen and Windorff are in the planning phase of designing a chemical reactor to purify the spent nuclear fuel, which will ultimately mitigate the dangers of stored nuclear waste by reducing its accumulation. “If we can take the old waste and recycle it, then we don't have to mine more uranium, which is good,” said Windorff. “And we are reducing the amount of waste that we need to send to a place like WIPP.” The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) is the nation's only deep geologic long-lived radioactive waste repository.
Located 26 miles southeast of Carlsbad, New Mexico, WIPP permanently isolates defense-generated transuranic waste 2,150 feet underground in an ancient salt formation. NMSU operates the Carlsbad Environmental Monitoring and Research Center, which conducts independent monitoring to evaluate the impact of WIPP on human health and the environment.
Andersen argued that “it makes sense for NMSU to be heavily involved in the next generation of the nuclear fuel cycle” due to New Mexico’s historical role in nuclear energy. The nuclear fuel cycle refers to mining, purifying, and enriching uranium to make it into fuel to be used in reactors that generate power, as well as the treatment and disposal of radioactive waste. Andersen clarifies that NMSU is not involved in designing nuclear reactors (University of New Mexico is working on that) but improving the process of “all the stuff that comes before and after” the use of the fuel. Andersen and Windorff are working on the chemistry and chemical engineering aspect of the process, not necessarily the nuclear aspect.
Using the grant funding, the NMSU professors plan to hire two post-doctoral researchers to work directly with TerraPower in Bellview, Washington, while they work on the planning needed for the eventual technological development. “There may be several rounds of funding after this (three-year project),” Andersen said. “This is the first step in what we hope will be many steps culminating in a commercialized product or process.”
Until then, Andersen and Windorff have their work cut out for them. Windorff explained they have a lot of preparatory research to do. “We need to learn about how the process works before we can scale it up, because some of the fuel that's coming out of the reactors is very dangerous. It takes a little bit of time to understand the process. And once we understand it, then it should be easier to have this process commercialized.”
NMSU’s partnership with TerraPower also opens possibilities for student involvement with national labs. “This (collaboration) gives us some diversity in our connections, so that when we have students we can send them our students,” Windorff said. Andersen explained that “TerraPower and Idaho National Lab are very much interested in having students from NMSU work there,” which would expand the university’s involvement in research across the country.