- The nuclear fuel cycle is the series of industrial processes which involve the production of electricity from uranium in nuclear power reactors.
- Uranium is a relatively common element that is found throughout the world. It is mined in a number of countries and must be processed before it can be used as fuel for a nuclear reactor.
- Electricity is created by using the heat generated in a nuclear reactor to produce steam and drive a turbine connected to a generator.
- Fuel removed from a reactor, after it has reached the end of its useful life, can be reprocessed to produce new fuel.
Uranium is a slightly radioactive metal that occurs throughout the earth's crust. It is about 500 times more abundant than gold and about as common as tin. It is present in most rocks and soils as well as in many rivers and in sea water. It is, for example, found in concentrations of about four parts per million (ppm) in granite, which makes up 60% of the earth's crust. In fertilisers, uranium concentration can be as high as 400 ppm (0.04%), and some coal deposits contain uranium at concentrations greater than 100 ppm (0.01%). Most of the radioactivity associated with uranium in nature is in fact due to other minerals derived from it by radioactive decay processes, and which are left behind in mining and milling.
There are a number of areas around the world where the concentration of uranium in the ground is sufficiently high that extraction of it for use as nuclear fuel is economically feasible. Such concentrations are called ore.The below figure represents various stages in Nuclear Fuel cycle
Uranium MiningBoth excavation and in situ techniques are used to recover uranium ore. Excavation may be underground and open pit mining.
In general, open pit mining is used where deposits are close to the surface and underground mining is used for deep deposits, typically greater than 120 m deep. Open pit mines require large holes on the surface, larger than the size of the ore deposit, since the walls of the pit must be sloped to prevent collapse. As a result, the quantity of material that must be removed in order to access the ore may be large. Underground mines have relatively small surface disturbance and the quantity of material that must be removed to access the ore is considerably less than in the case of an open pit mine.
An increasing proportion of the world's uranium now comes from in situ leaching (ISL), where oxygenated groundwater is circulated through a very porous orebody to dissolve the uranium and bring it to the surface. ISL may be with slightly acid or with alkaline solutions to keep the uranium in solution. The uranium is then recovered from the solution as in a conventional mill.
The decision as to which mining method to use for a particular deposit is governed by the nature of the orebody, safety and economic considerations.
In the case of underground uranium mines, special precautions, consisting primarily of increased ventilation, are required to protect against airborne radiation exposure.
Uranium MillingMilling, which is generally carried out close to a uranium mine, extracts the uranium from the ore. Most mining facilities include a mill, although where mines are close together, one mill may process the ore from several mines. Milling produces a uranium oxide concentrate which is shipped from the mill. It is sometimes referred to as 'yellowcake' and generally contains more than 80% uranium. The original ore may contains as little as 0.1% uranium.
In a mill, uranium is extracted from the crushed and ground-up ore by leaching, in which either a strong acid or a strong alkaline solution is used to dissolve the uranium. The uranium is then removed from this solution and precipitated. After drying and usually heating it is packed in 200-litre drums as a concentrate.
The remainder of the ore, containing most of the radioactivity and nearly all the rock material, becomes tailings, which are emplaced in engineered facilities near the mine (often in mined out pit). Tailings contain long-lived radioactive materials in low concentrations and toxic materials such as heavy metals; however, the total quantity of radioactive elements is less than in the original ore, and their collective radioactivity will be much shorter-lived. These materials need to be isolated from the environment.
The product of a uranium mill is not directly usable as a fuel for a nuclear reactor. Additional processing, generally referred to as enrichment, is required for most kinds of reactors. This process requires uranium to be in gaseous form and the way this is achieved is to convert it to uranium hexafluoride, which is a gas at relatively low temperatures.
At a conversion facility, uranium is first refined to uranium dioxide, which can be used as the fuel for those types of reactors that do not require enriched uranium. Most is then converted into uranium hexafluoride, ready for the enrichment plant. It is shipped in strong metal containers. The main hazard of this stage of the fuel cycle is the use of hydrogen fluoride.
Natural uranium consists, primarily, of a mixture of two isotopes (atomic forms) of uranium. Only 0.7% of natural uranium is "fissile", or capable of undergoing fission, the process by which energy is produced in a nuclear reactor. The fissile isotope of uranium is uranium 235 (U-235). The remainder is uranium 238 (U-238).
In the most common types of nuclear reactors, a higher than natural concentration of U-235 is required. The enrichment process produces this higher concentration, typically between 3.5% and 5% U-235, by removing over 85% of the U-238. This is done by separating gaseous uranium hexafluoride into two streams, one being enriched to the required level and known as low-enriched uranium. The other stream is progressively depleted in U-235 and is called 'tails'.
There are two enrichment processes in large scale commercial use, each of which uses uranium hexafluoride as feed: gaseous diffusion and gas centrifuge. They both use the physical properties of molecules, specifically the 1% mass difference, to separate the isotopes. The product of this stage of the nuclear fuel cycle is enriched uranium hexafluoride, which is reconverted to produce enriched uranium oxide.
Fuel fabricationReactor fuel is generally in the form of ceramic pellets. These are formed from pressed uranium oxide which is sintered (baked) at a high temperature (over 1400°C). The pellets are then encased in metal tubes to form fuel rods, which are arranged into a fuel assembly ready for introduction into a reactor. The dimensions of the fuel pellets and other components of the fuel assembly are precisely controlled to ensure consistency in the characteristics of fuel bundles.
In a fuel fabrication plant great care is taken with the size and shape of processing vessels to avoid criticality (a limited chain reaction releasing radiation). With low-enriched fuel criticality is most unlikely, but in plants handling special fuels for research reactors this is a vital consideration.
Inside a nuclear reactor the nuclei of U-235 atoms split (fission) and, in the process, release energy. This energy is used to heat water and turn it into steam. The steam is used to drive a turbine connected to a generator which produces electricity. Some of the U-238 in the fuel is turned into plutonium in the reactor core. The main plutonium isotope is also fissile and it yields about one third of the energy in a typical nuclear reactor. The fissioning of uranium is used as a source of heat in a nuclear power station in the same way that the burning of coal, gas or oil is used as a source of heat in a fossil fuel power plant.
As with as a coal-fired power station about two thirds of the heat is dumped, either to a large volume of water (from the sea or large river, heating it a few degrees) or to a relatively smaller volume of water in cooling towers, using evaporative cooling (latent heat of vapourisation).
With time, the concentration of fission fragments and heavy elements formed in the same way as plutonium in a fuel bundle will increase to the point where it is no longer practical to continue to use the fuel. So after 12-24 months the 'spent fuel' is removed from the reactor. The amount of energy that is produced from a fuel bundle varies with the type of reactor and the policy of the reactor operator.
Typically, some 36 million kilowatt-hours of electricity are produced from one tonne of natural uranium. The production of this amount of electrical power from fossil fuels would require the burning of over 20,000 tonnes of black coal or 8.5 million cubic metres of gas.
Used fuel storage
When removed from a reactor, a fuel bundle will be emitting both radiation, principally from the fission fragments, and heat. Used fuel is unloaded into a storage pond immediately adjacent to the reactor to allow the radiation levels to decrease. In the ponds the water shields the radiation and absorbs the heat. Used fuel is held in such pools for several months to several years.
Depending on policies in particular countries, some used fuel may be transferred to central storage facilities. Ultimately, used fuel must either be reprocessed or prepared for permanent disposal.
Used fuel is about 95% U-238 but it also contains about 1% U-235 that has not fissioned, about 1% plutonium and 3% fission products, which are highly radioactive, with other transuranic elements formed in the reactor. In a reprocessing facility the used fuel is separated into its three components: uranium, plutonium and waste, containing fission products. Reprocessing enables recycling of the uranium and plutonium into fresh fuel, and produces a significantly reduced amount of waste (compared with treating all used fuel as waste).
Uranium and Plutonium Recycling
The uranium from reprocessing, which typically contains a slightly higher concentration of U-235 than occurs in nature, can be reused as fuel after conversion and enrichment, if necessary. The plutonium can be directly made into mixed oxide (MOX) fuel, in which uranium and plutonium oxides are combined.
In reactors that use MOX fuel, plutonium substitutes for the U-235 in normal uranium oxide fuel.
Used fuel disposal
At the present time, there are no disposal facilities (as opposed to storage facilities) in operation in which used fuel, not destined for reprocessing, and the waste from reprocessing can be placed. Although technical issues related to disposal have been addressed, there is currently no pressing technical need to establish such facilities, as the total volume of such wastes is relatively small. Further, the longer it is stored the easier it is to handle, due to the progressive diminution of radioactivity. There is also a reluctance to dispose of used fuel because it represents a significant energy resource which could be reprocessed at a later date to allow recycling of the uranium and plutonium. (There is a proposal to use it in Candu reactors directly as fuel.)
A number of countries are carrying out studies to determine the optimum approach to the disposal of spent fuel and wastes from reprocessing. The general consensus favours its placement into deep geological repositories, initially recoverable.
Wastes from the nuclear fuel cycle are categorised as high-, medium- or low-level wastes by the amount of radiation that they emit. These wastes come from a number of sources and include:
- low-level waste produced at all stages of the fuel cycle;
- intermediate-level waste produced during reactor operation and by reprocessing;
- high-level waste, which is waste containing fission products from reprocessing, and in many countries, the used fuel itself.