European Nuclear Waste Recycling and Transmutation

Greg Taboada
December 8, 2016

Submitted as coursework for PH240, Stanford University, Fall 2016


Fig. 1: Cooling Towers from a nuclear power plant in Cattenom, France. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Due to recent history, the word "nuclear" excites certain neural pathways leaning towards either wartime devastation or a futuristic environmental solution. As most scientifically published trends show, fossil fuels will run out in the near future and an urgent transition to a more efficient and cleaner energy is a vital issue. Nuclear energy emissions show a drastically smaller CO2 pollution level than our current efforts. However, as Rojey points out, nuclear energy is not risk-free, and nuclear non-proliferation strategy plays a large role in the transfer of energy tactics to nuclear energy. [1] This page would like to avert from the government policy and focus more on methods of waste management and potential recycling processes. To date, 14% of the world's electricity production comes from nuclear energy. The main issue is disposal of nuclear waste from these reactors. Current efforts consist of burial of waste in non-eroding containers. Advancements in recycling and transmutation technologies may provide a more efficient way to deal with nuclear waste and ideally provide a smoother transition to nuclear becoming a more interwoven part of our controlled energy consumption around the world. Fig. 1 shows the size and structure of the reactors that would house many of the processes described in this piece. [2]

France's Success through Reprocessing

First, let us describe spent nuclear fuel as post processed and irradiated and no longer sustain a nuclear reaction to produce energy. The goal of reprocessing is to take this spent fuel and repurpose or re-enrich it to be able to produce fission reactions again. For France, in the 1970's their reprocessing goal was to reduce the radiotoxicity of plutonium waste through recycling. The residual uranium left after the first usage can be re-seperated and enriched to produce a second fission reaction. France is one of the few countries in Europe that has continued to focus on the reprocessing of spent nuclear waste. France's success is due to strong financial and political support of the endeavor. Foreign contracts had produced most of the capital leading up to the 21st century; however, now as future contracts are not being renewed, France is switching strategies for their own electrical utility. 2007 data shows that France currently operates 58 pressurized water reactors, and of the 1,200 tons of spent fuel discharge, 850 tons are reprocessed. [3]

Dangers of Recycling Using Mox Fuel

MOX fuel is a post irradiated combination that is then repurposed to have the ability to take on future fission reactions. The dangers are that the creation of MOX fuel is a rather simple process that could be done with minimal efforts by a group with malintention. This MOX fuel is filled with plutonium that can easily be manipulated. A used Uranium fuel rod, nitric acid, and some wet chemistry will provide the Plutonium that is mixed with unenriched Uranium. One can see how simple this process is and the ease of creating dangerous fissile materials.

Reproccessing Waste and Transmutation

Some problems with reprocessing are that people tend to ignore the increased complexity of this management of waste due to the recycling of the plutonium. There is a large production of waste that is still created from this reprocessing cycle that does not attain great disposal technology. [4]

Transmutation is a companion to the recycling process to try to solve the radiotoxicity issue of spent fuel. These radioactive chemicals have half-lives of when these products become less radio-active over time. Some half-lives are 40 years and some are a thousand years. Rapid Burner technology decrease the rate of decay rapidly making the waste less radioactive and easier to handle and transport.This develoment of transmutation technologies might lead to a more efficient strategy of disposing of spent fuel instead of dangerously using Mox Fuel. [3]

© Greg Taboada. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] A. Rojey, Energy and Climate: How to Achieve a Successful Energy Transition (Wiley, 2009).

[2] S. S. Hecker. M. Englert, and M. C. Miller, "Nuclear Non-Proliferation," in Fundamentals of Materials for Energy and Environmental Sustainability, ed. by D. S. Ginley and D. Cahen (Cambridge University Press, 2011), p. 162.

[3] E. R. Merz and C. E. Walter, Advanced Nuclear Systems Consuming Excess Plutonium (Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1997).

[4] "Advanced Burner Test Reactor," Argonne National Laboratory, ANL-ABR-1, September 2006.