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.
Fuel removed from a reactor, after it has reached the end of its useful life, can be reprocessed so that most is recycled for new fuel. The various activities associated with the production of electricity from nuclear reactions are referred to collectively as the nuclear fuel cycle. The nuclear fuel cycle starts with the mining of uranium and ends with the disposal of nuclear waste. With the reprocessing of used fuel as an option for nuclear energy, the stages form a true cycle.
To prepare uranium for use in a nuclear reactor, it undergoes the steps of mining and milling, conversion, enrichment and fuel fabrication. These steps make up the ‘front end’ of the nuclear fuel cycle. After uranium has spent about three years in a reactor to produce electricity, the used fuel may undergo a further series of steps including temporary storage, reprocessing, and recycling before wastes are disposed. Collectively these steps are known as the ‘back end’ of the fuel cycle.
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. Special precautions, consisting primarily of increased ventilation, are required in underground mines to protect against airborne radiation exposure.
An increasing proportion of the world’s uranium now comes from in situ leach (ISL) mining, where oxygenated groundwater is circulated through a very porous orebody to dissolve the uranium oxide and bring it to the surface. ISL may be with slightly acid or with alkaline solutions to keep the uranium in solution. The uranium oxide is then recovered from the solution as in a conventional mill.
In a mill, the ore is crushed and ground to a fine slurry which is leached in sulfuric acid (or sometimes a strong alkaline solution) to allow the separation of uranium from the waste rock. It is then recovered from solution and precipitated as uranium oxide (U3O8) concentrate. After drying and usually heating it is packed in 200-litre drums as a concentrate, sometimes referred to as ‘yellowcake’ (though it is usually khaki). U3O8 is the uranium product which is sold. About 200 tonnes is required to keep a large (1000 MWe) nuclear power reactor generating electricity for one year.
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 a mined out pit). Tailings need to be isolated from the environment because they contain long-lived radioactive materials in low concentrations and maybe also 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.
The uranium oxide product of a uranium mill is not directly usable as a fuel for a nuclear reactor and additional processing is required. 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 form, or isotope, of uranium which is fissile is the uranium-235 (U-235) isotope. The remainder is uranium-238 (U-238)*. For most kinds of reactor, the concentration of the fissile uranium-235 isotope needs to be increased – typically to between 3.5% and 5% U-235. Isotope separation is a physical process to concentrate (‘enrich’) one isotope relative to others. The enrichment process requires the uranium to be in a gaseous form. The uranium oxide concentrate is therefore first converted to uranium hexafluoride, which is a gas at relatively low temperatures.
At a conversion facility, the uranium oxide 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. The main hazard of this stage of the fuel cycle is the use of hydrogen fluoride. The uranium hexafluoride is then drained into 14-tonne cylinders where it solidifies. These strong metal containers are shipped to the enrichment plant.
The enrichment process separates 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’, or simply depleted uranium.
The main enrichment process in commercial plants uses centrifuges, with thousands of rapidly-spinning vertical tubes. As they spin, the physical properties of molecules, specifically the 1% mass difference between the two uranium isotopes, separates them. A laser enrichment process is in the final stage of development.
The product of this stage of the nuclear fuel cycle is enriched uranium hexafluoride, which is reconverted to produce enriched uranium oxide. Up to this point the fuel material can be considered fungible (though enrichment levels vary), but fuel fabrication involves very specific design.
Reactor fuel is generally in the form of ceramic pellets. These are formed from pressed uranium oxide (UO2) which is sintered (baked) at a high temperature (over 1400°C)a. 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 the fuel. 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. Some 27 tonnes of fresh enriched fuel is required each year by a 1000 MWe reactor.
Several hundred fuel assemblies make up the core of a reactor. For a reactor with an output of 1000 megawatts (MWe), the core would contain about 75 tonnes of low-enriched uranium. In the reactor core the U-235 isotope fissions or splits, producing a lot of heat in a continuous process called a chain reaction. The process depends on the presence of a moderator such as water or graphite, and is fully controlled.
Some of the U-238 in the reactor core is turned into plutonium and about half of this is also fissioned, providing about one-third of the reactor’s energy output (or more than half in CANDU). As in fossil-fuel burning electricity generating plants, the heat is used to produce steam to drive a turbine and an electric generator, in a 1000 MWe unit providing over 8 billion kilowatt hours (8 TWh) of electricity in one year.
To maintain efficient reactor performance, about one-third of the spent fuel is removed every year or 18 months, to be replaced with fresh fuel. The length of fuel cycle is correlated with the use of burnable absorbers in the fuel, allowing higher burn-up. In the USA about 85% of reactors have an 18-month fuel cycle, a few have 24-month ones. In Asia, over 80% have 18-month cycles, the rest 12-month. In Europe, over 60% have 12-month cycles, the balance 18-month, and over one-quarter do not use burnable absorbers. All reactors in the USA and Asia use burnable absorbers. So 18 months is a typical worldwide refuelling interval.
Typically, some 44 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 f gas
With time, the concentration of fission fragments and heavy elements formed in the same way as plutonium in the fuel will increase to the point where it is no longer practical to continue to use the fuel, though much potential remains in it. So after 18-36 months the used fuel is removed from the reactor. The amount of energy that is produced from a fuel assembly varies with the type of reactor and the policy of the reactor operator. Used fuel will typically have about 1.0% U-235 and 0.6% fissile plutonium (almost 1% Pu total), with around 95% U-238. About 3% is fission products and minor actinides.
Depending on policies in particular countries, some used fuel may be transferred to central storage facilities. Ultimately, used fuel must either be reprocessed in order to recycle most of it, or prepared for permanent disposal. The longer it is stored, the easier it is to handle, due to decay of radioactivity.
There are two alternatives for used fuel:
1. Reprocessing to recover and recycle the usable portion of it.
2. Long-term storage and final disposal without reprocessing.