Arkansas looks for opportunity in recycling nuclear waste
May 29 - June 4, 2023
By Hunter Field
As other states fight to keep nuclear waste away, Arkansas is taking the opposite approach.
Here, state officials will explore importing spent nuclear fuel.
The difference is that Arkansas wouldn’t just store the radioactive material; it would attempt to extract the remaining usable nuclear fuel and recycle it to generate more electricity.
If successful — and experts say that’s a big if — Arkansas would be the first state in the U.S. and one of the first places in the world to take advantage of this emerging technology.
“The potential for the state or country that gets this right, the economic value to that entity is going to be almost beyond comprehension,” said University of Arkansas System President Donald Bobbitt.
Recycling has long been viewed as a potentially critical piece to the nuclear puzzle, offering an opportunity to cut down on waste and offer additional nuclear fuel.
The U.S. has an aging network of more than 50 nuclear power plants, and those plants’ reactors have always been inefficient.
Most nuclear reactors in the U.S. are only able to use about 5% of the usable material stored in nuclear fuel rods. That has left each plant with piles of spent rods that remain radioactive and contain potentially valuable fuel. And right now, the U.S. doesn’t have any place to put all that waste, which can take thousands of years to decay.
However, the new generation of nuclear plants expected to replace the current fleet in the coming decades have the ability to use the remaining fissionable material in those spent rods.
The recycling process has been proven to be technically possible in national labs, but the question now is: Can it be commercially viable?
Handling irradiated materials is expensive, and there are always proliferation concerns.
Plus, new deposits of uranium have been found, dropping the price of the radioactive element and lowering demand for alternative sources.
However, as countries across the globe continue to look for ways to cut down on carbon emissions, nuclear energy offers a cleaner alternative that produces energy 24/7 without experiencing the atmospheric disruptions that wind and solar do.
So, industry experts expect the demand to come.
The Arkansas Plan
Any nuclear recycling is still a long way off in Arkansas.
Massive facilities would need to be built. A highly skilled workforce would need to be trained, and a lengthy federal permitting process would need to be navigated.
A site would also have to be selected, and community members would have to buy into the idea of importing nuclear waste.
A new state law sets out the first steps, which sponsor Rep. Jack Ladyman, R-Jonesboro, hopes the state can take in the next two years.
Act 259 builds on years of study by legislative committees and state officials. It directs the Arkansas Department of Energy and Environment to create the Arkansas Nuclear Recycling Program and secure funding “to study the technical and economic feasibility and commercial viability of the interim storage and recycling of spent nuclear fuel.”
If the state determines the process can be profitable, Arkansas will declare itself open to take nuclear waste and begin the process of opening a recycling facility. In a perfect scenario, Ladyman said a new reactor would set up shop next door, meaning the entire process would happen in one location.
Ladyman noted that there are some people who doubt the process can ever be economical. If that turns out to be the case, Ladyman said the state still will have benefited from an influx of outside money and trained a bunch of highly skilled engineers in the process of the study.
But Ladyman is optimistic.
“These plants will work, and it will be the future of nuclear power,” he said.
How it works
Nuclear recycling involves complex processes with reusable materials from spent nuclear fuel. The goal is to recover uranium and plutonium, which can be reused as fuel in nuclear reactors, thereby maximizing the utilization of these resources.
Additionally, recycling aims to reduce the volume and longevity of radioactive waste by separating and safely managing the remaining materials.
But it doesn’t remove waste entirely, and the U.S. will still need to find a permanent disposal solution.
Recycling is not widespread, but it is being done in several countries in Europe and Asia. France has a program that recycles spent nuclear fuel and reuses it in a power plant with a new generation reactor.
Currently, all commercial recycling plants use what is known as the “PUREX” process, which uses acid to extract uranium and plutonium before using solvent extraction to separate them.
However, the process Arkansas will explore is “pyroprocessing,” which involves taking the pellets from spent nuclear fuel rods and converting the oxide components into metal.
That metal would then be submerged into a molten salt where an electric current is used to convert the uranium and other elements into fuel.
Reprocessed fuel can only be used in the new generation of nuclear reactors, commonly called fast reactors. There are no commercial fast reactors in the U.S., and only Russia has developed commercial-scale fast reactors.
However, experts agree that fast reactors are coming.
A lot would need to happen, including the opening of the newest type of nuclear reactor that is capable of using recycled nuclear fuel.
If it were to come together, Arkansas has positioned itself to be at the forefront, nuclear experts agree.
“The techniques for pyroprocessing have only been developed to the demonstration phase, not as a commercial plant, so were this to go ahead at Arkansas, it could indeed be a world-leading plant,” said Jonathan Cobb, a spokesperson for the World Nuclear Association.
Right now, the United States has no plan for disposing of nuclear waste.
Spent fuel rods are piling up outside nuclear power plants across the U.S., though the amount of waste nationwide remains small enough that you could fit it all inside of a Walmart, said Doug True, the chief nuclear officer at the Nuclear Energy Institute.
The federal government did have a permanent plan to bury nuclear waste beneath Yucca Mountain in Nevada, but it abandoned that project after strong local opposition.
Just last month, the U.S. Department of Energy updated its process for locating temporary nuclear waste storage facilities.
Only two sites — one in Texas and one in New Mexico — have applied for an interim storage license in the last decade, and they’re still facing opposition.
Arkansas is home to one nuclear power plant — Entergy’s Arkansas Nuclear One in Russellville.
It began storing spent nuclear fuel after the plant began operating in the 1970s. It now has 102 dry fuel storage casks, according to Entergy spokesperson Mara Hartmann.
After the nuclear fuel is used at the plant, it goes into a pool where it must cool for five years before being moved to one of the steel-reinforced concrete casks.
“These casks are designed for long term storage and are fortified against extreme events like earthquakes, fires and hurricanes. They are well-guarded and safe enough to walk up to and touch,” Hartmann said.
“The federal government committed to taking possession of all nuclear spent fuel decades ago, but has not yet done so, so operating companies store fuel safely and securely onsite until the federal government acts upon that commitment.”
In 2021, the Nuclear Energy Institute estimated that Entergy housed 1,725 metric tons of uranium in Arkansas.
There’s enough to power the state of Arkansas for 100 years, Ladyman and several experts said.
The Arkansas project’s challenges are plenty, but the primary issues come down to economics and public opinion.
Ladyman’s bill directs the state Department of Energy and Environment to seek federal funding. He pointed to the massive and currently untapped Congressional Nuclear Waste Fund. The federal fund totals more than $45 billion, mostly from fees paid by household utility customers.
If funding is secured, whether the project is commercially viable will come down to how much it costs to handle the radioactive secondary waste and fabricate the recycled fuel, said Monica C. Regalbuto, director of Nuclear Fuel Cycle Strategy at the Idaho National Laboratory.
The Idaho National Lab houses the Experimental Breeder Reactor II that demonstrated it is possible to use recycled fuel in the manner Arkansas plans to explore.
“From a technology point of view, the EBR-II demonstrated the ability to have a closed fuel cycle,” Regalbuto said. “What we have not done is proven that at a commercial scale it’s economical. It is technically feasible. It comes down to the fact that it’s expensive to handle and secure these irradiated materials.”
If past nuclear projects are any indication, public opinion may be the biggest hurdle any recycling project must overcome.
Ladyman’s legislation recruits the U of A to help with public education, outreach and gauging support.
Bobbitt, the UA president, noted that many people immediately think of disasters like Chernobyl when nuclear is mentioned, but they often fail to consider the dozens of times disasters have been avoided because controls and mitigation tools worked properly.
Bobbitt, whose undergraduate studies focused on nuclear chemistry, also noted that being downwind from a coal plant brings exposure to radiation. Indeed, one study recently found that the radiation emitted by coal plants exceeds that of nuclear plants.
“Humans understand we have to deal with dangerous things,” he said. “We’re pretty good once we understand what the risks are at figuring out how to do that.”
1. There are 102 steel-reinforced concrete storage casks holding spent nuclear fuel rods at Arkansas Nuclear One in Russellville. (Taylor Kendrick/Entergy Arkansas One)