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Hitachi developing reactor that burns nuclear waste

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September 3, 2014

Hitachi is developing a new reactor that burns transuranium elements, such as those produc...

Hitachi is developing a new reactor that burns transuranium elements, such as those produced by this advanced test reactor at Argonne National Laboratory (Image: Argonne National Laboratory/Wikimedia)

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The problem with nuclear waste is that it needs to be stored for many thousands of years before it’s safe, which is a tricky commitment for even the most stable civilization. To make this situation a bit more manageable, Hitachi, in partnership with MIT, the University of Michigan, and the University of California, Berkeley, is working on new reactor designs that use transuranic nuclear waste for fuel; leaving behind only short-lived radioactive elements.

In popular imagination, nuclear waste is a wildly radioactive goo that glows like the back end of a lightning bug. But in real life, the real problem of nuclear waste isn't the "hot" stuff, but the mildly radioactive elements with atomic numbers greater than 92. That’s because highly radioactive elements have short half lives. That is, they burn themselves out very quickly – sometimes in a matter of minutes or even seconds.

On the other hand, mildly radioactive elements, such as plutonium, have half lives measured in tens of thousands or even millions of years. That makes storing them a very long-term problem, and is a particular difficulty in countries like the United States that don’t recycle transuranium elements by fuel reprocessing or fast-breeder reactors.

Diagram of Hitachi's nuclear-waste burning reactor system (Image: Hitachi)

What Hitachi and its partners are trying to do is to find ways to design next-generation reactors that can use the low-level transuranium elements as fuel; leaving behind the high-level elements to quickly (relatively speaking) burn themselves out in no more than a century or so.

That’s not a particularly new idea. Some modular nuclear reactors already use nuclear waste as fuel. But what sets Hitachi apart is that it's looking into designs based on current boiling-water reactors that are known as Resource-renewable Boiling Water Reactors (RBWR) and are being developed by Hitachi and Hitachi GE Nuclear Energy Ltd.

The idea is to develop a new fuel element design using refined nuclear waste products along with uranium that can be installed in a standard boiling water reactor. This would not only make such reactors more economical to build, but would also use decades of safety and operations experience to achieve efficient nuclear fission in transuranium elements.

Hitachi says that it’s already carried out joint research with its partners starting in 2007 and is now concentrating on the next phase, which deals with more accurate analysis methods, as well as reactor safety and performance, with an eye toward practical application of what’s been learned.

Source: Hitachi

About the Author
David Szondy David Szondy is a freelance writer based in Monroe, Washington. An award-winning playwright, he has contributed to Charged and iQ magazine and is the author of the website Tales of Future Past.   All articles by David Szondy
16 Comments

Countries "like the US, which doesn't recycle nuclear fuel" are the only kind of country. Some others have tried, but failed very expensively. This is a nice idea, but so far, it looks like another PR stunt by a deadly industry.

Bob Stuart
3rd September, 2014 @ 06:04 am PDT

The US developed a reactor, the Integral Fast Reactor (IFR), able to recycle nuclear fuel between 1984 - 1994. This was closed down by Clinton's democrats with John Kerry and Al Gore leading the way. Since then it's been banned on the spurious ground of proliferation - despite being no proliferation threat because it was designed to be proliferation resistant. GE-Hitachi have the commercial version of the IFR. It's called PRISM. It's no wonder that people will fail expensively when environmentalists ban their technology.

Mark Pawelek
3rd September, 2014 @ 08:00 am PDT

reuse idle N plant sites for this alone, hoorah, yes

mass produce for reuse alone

More jobs for N Industry alone

Can reactor work in ships & subs??

Stephen N Russell
3rd September, 2014 @ 08:32 am PDT

Its not right to call plutonium slightly radioactive., Its extremely radioactive and a small dust mote can give you cancer if you inhale it.

Neil Farbstein
3rd September, 2014 @ 09:07 am PDT

I remember reading about thorium reactors a few years ago after the Japanese disaster. They are capable of burning waste and much safer.

Their main problem was lack of funding for a startup company and the political power of the biggies like GE.

The market will allow these good ideas to fail in the face of well capitalized competition. Government may be needed for change here.

Not everywhere but maybe here.

Timothy Foley
3rd September, 2014 @ 09:44 am PDT

Facts won't go away no matter how much PR.

Stable isotopes like 240Pu don't fission, which is why they are not refined and used in weapons.

And, as we saw so very well at Fukushima Dai-Ichi #3, 238Pu has a nasty tendency to continue fission WITHOUT water, crippling one of the major 'safety' features of the LWR.

As for the putative 'success' of breeders, I remind you that Russia, China, France and even the Brits tried building breeders, had accidents, and barely avoided catastrophes, thus terminating those projects.

ALL cases of breeders have proved unreliable. ALL.

And that's why you don't see them in the market.

Meanwhile, back at the Al Gore / Jimmy Carter hating ranch, reality is that the permanent sequester costs far exceed the value of electricty

KronosFire
3rd September, 2014 @ 09:46 am PDT

Anyone know how well this lines up with ongoing work on Thorium based fission such as the reactor project being sponsored,in part, by Bill Gates?

Thorium can burn other isotopes while releasing something like 40,000 times more energy than uranium. The eventual end state is lead.

StWils
3rd September, 2014 @ 10:03 am PDT

This is by far not the only design that can burn nuclear waste, personally I much prefer inherently safe approaches:

http://wavewatching.net/2012/09/23/transmuting-waste-and-worries-away/

quax
3rd September, 2014 @ 10:29 am PDT

Far from unreliable, the BN-600 reactor, a sodium-cooled, fast neutron breeder reactor, has been supplying electricity to the Soviet/Russian grid for almost 35 years. Important in this context is that breeder reactors extract much more energy from the fuel than thermal neutron reactors, and generate spent fuel that is much shorter-lived. Following the success and lessons learned from the BN-600, a second reactor, BN-800 is in initial operation, and and more are in the plans.

The massive amount of radioactive waste, and associated storage problems, are mostly political, not technical in nature - in no small part resulting from misguided proliferation fears that had the Carter administration kill the fast neutron reactor technology in the US.

physics314
3rd September, 2014 @ 03:26 pm PDT

We already have the largest reactor by far, one that can power the entire world if we capture its energy, the sun.

ezeflyer
3rd September, 2014 @ 06:30 pm PDT

LFTR is coming but when? There are still some major hurdles besides politics to contend with.

I have read the theory of LFTR and waste Pu loading and it does add up.

The problems with radioactive flourides, the very specialised processing plant which must accompany the reactor, and the slight proliferation risk is enough to hold up development.

Also, they would be harder to start than a second-hand lawnmower.

nutcase
3rd September, 2014 @ 07:07 pm PDT

good luck to them,

India is currently reprocessing nuclear waste back in to fuel and medical isotopes, along with other stuff. they use a 1950's Canadian 3 mode reactor design, which is very labor intensive.

glasshats
3rd September, 2014 @ 07:49 pm PDT

Neil and others concerned about the toxicity/radioactivity of plutonium should go and read the "toxicity" section of the wikipedia entry on plutonium. Contrary to common mythology Pu is not the most dangerous thing in the world. Link to article: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plutonium.

Winterbiker
3rd September, 2014 @ 08:20 pm PDT

I am sold on the LFTR technology and wish Dr. Weinberger was still around to help push it forward. Developed along the lines of his very successful Molten Salt Reactor at Oak Ridge Natinal Labs (ORNL).

There are methods of encapsulating radioactive waste products but with the LFTR it would use all weapons grade waste products and turn out waste that has a much shorter half life.

The MSR was known as the "chemist's reactor" because it was proposed mainly by chemists (ORNL's Ray Briant and Ed Bettis (an engineer) and NEPA's Vince Calkins)[8] and because it used a chemical solution of melted salts containing the actinides (uranium, thorium, and/or plutonium) in a carrier salt, most often composed of beryllium (BeF2) and lithium (LiF – NOTE the Lithium is isotopically enriched in Lithium-7 to prevent excessive neutron capture or tritium production) - FLiBe.[9] The MSR also affords the opportunity to change the chemistry of the molten salt while the reactor was operating to remove fission products (the 'nuclear ashes') and add new fuel or change the fuel, all of which is called "online processing".

Dr. Alvin Weinberger did some great work at ORNL.

I'm definitely on the hater bandwagon when you mention those who hold up progress for misguided or other than best for humanity reasons.

A study done by several people with greater brain cell counts than mine concluded that if all of us went to solar power it would probably raise the temperature slightly due to the heat sink of so many black panels. I do have some really fabulous SunPower panels cranking out 10.5 KWh for my home, and I love them. I just need a good battery backup option so I can boot my utility company that continues to demonize we who use solar and tax us with a euphemistic fee called an Environmental Benefits Surcharge! Sounds like its a good thing but it is just a tax for those who have solar installed. Did I mention I'm a hater of my local power company?

Dr. Veritas
4th September, 2014 @ 02:39 am PDT

This is interesting.

There is recycling in France and some others like S. Korea want to start (Bob). But, the Purex process is expensive. It's actually much cheaper to just throw it in a hole in the ground.

Politically it is somewhat better to recycle, although there you will be accused of 'proliferating' (although it's the wrong isotope of Pu). Of course, anti-nukes are not about reason, they are about opposition and will always find and grossly exaggerate, or simply make up, some issue.

Contrary to some other comments, fast reactors (using sodium coolant) have 'worked'. The EBR II operated for 30 years. Likewise the BN600 in Russia. And, the BN800 just started up a couple of months ago at Beloyarsk. China will probably have Russia build a few of these. The BN1200 is being designed now, and Russia also has a plan for a lead-cooled fast reactor (BREST 300). We also have the 'Prism' design (sodium) from GE, that they claim is ready to build. They're trying to get the UK to build one as a 'waste burner'.

These designs will probably be the primary spent-fuel burning, recycling (whatever you want to call it) approach, at least for uranium. There is plenty of work going on to use thorium as well (solid fuel in India, and molten-salt in China), in a 'complete' cycle (one that leaves only fission products and makes full use of the fuel).

But the fact that a simple redesign of BWR fuel might use a lot more (or all) of the fissionable material, does seem like low-hanging fruit. Especially if it can be used in reactors already built, which seems to be the idea.

Stephen Kennedy
4th September, 2014 @ 05:34 am PDT

hey Steven Kennedy just to clear something up the nuclear industry defines "proliferation" as the construction of nuclear weapons. It does not mean "proliferation of nuclear waste".

All nuclear reactor breeding cycles can be demonstrated to have a proliferation risk.

It's worth noting that every nation that has built successful breeder reactors have also built bombs. Big Bombs. Except Canada maybe.

The politics of it goes like this:

"If the constitution guarantees my right to bear arms then it also guarantees my right to bear nuclear arms".

nutcase
4th September, 2014 @ 06:47 pm PDT
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