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Ukraine’s damaged nuclear plant shines a light on spent nuclear waste recycling

The fire that broke out at Ukraine’s nuclear power plant following an attack from Russia’s militia has been put out, authorities in Zaporizhzhia have reported. The concerns about damaging nuclear power plants draw attention to how, in peacetime, recyclers recover spent nuclear waste. Let’s review the facts.

Around 400 000 tonnes of used fuel is expected to be generated worldwide during the period 2010-2030, according to data from the World Nuclear Association. An estimated 70 000 tonnes of this will come from Europe, with around 60 000 tonnes being generated in North America.

To date, more than 110 commercial power reactors, 250 research reactors, 48 prototype reactors, and a large number of fuel cycle facilities have been retired from operation. Most of the used fuel consist of roughly 96% uranium, less than 1% is U-235, and up to 1% is plutonium.

Looking ahead, the Asia Pacific Region is poised to see the most market growth, write analysts at Transparency Market Research. In its forecast spanning the 2019-2027 period, the firm predicts that North America’s nuclear waste recycling market will expand ‘at a sluggish pace’ while Europe, notably the UK, will remain a significant player in this niche market.

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Recently, Recycling International reported that scientists at the Ural Federal University in Russia have discovered a new way to extract uranium from radioactive sludge. Those working on the R&D project were able to maximise uranium extraction at 99.98%. The latest issue features a story on this topic.

Another development is that Veolia and Cyclife UK have established a joint venture in France, called Waste2Glass, to tackle the challenge of radioactive waste. The new facility is to be built at Limay on the outskirts of Paris, near a new pilot unit recently commissioned by Veolia. This allows the 50/50 joint venture to carry out demonstrations and obtain the certifications required for the industrial deployment of the innovative recycling process.

Nuclear energy specialist Urenco started construction on a nuclear recycling plant at a subsidiary in the north-west of England last August. The Urenco Metals Recycling plant, planned to begin operations in 2024, will deal with size reduction, surface decontamination and metal melting for a range of metal types.

Not least, the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Seattle has developed an innovative and ‘cost-efficient’ technology to recover elements from spent nuclear fuel from power plants that are typically buried in large underground storage units.

Background: Now the flames at the Zaporizhzhia plant have been extinguished, it’s clear that the power plant’s six reactors remain intact. The compartment auxiliary buildings for reactor unit 1 have been damaged, according to Ukraine’s State Nuclear Regulatory Inspectorate. Plant operators and staff cautioned that further attacks could end in disaster.

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