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14 October 2014

A revised textbook gives an up-to-date overview of the nuclear fuel cycle from mining to radioactive waste disposal. Aimed at nonspecialists, it looks to be a suitable replacement for some of the older classical texts on this topic. By Guglielmo Lomonaco

The past few decades have seen remarkable advances in nuclear fuel cycles. Some of this progress derives from environmental research, including radioactive waste disposal and remediation of contaminated sites. To a larger extent, technology, including the increasing availability of computing power, has fuelled the growth of fuel-cycle knowledge. There seems every reason to expect such progress to continue.

First it is important to remark that the nuclear fuel cycle is a wide topic, and is not easily summarized. Some aspects (mining, conversion, and so on) do not change significantly with time, while others (for example policies, material technologies, and so on) can be quite different from one year to another. Second, the nuclear fuel cycle is characterized by the wide range of scientific disciplines and technologies it employs: the development of increasingly integrated processes across the many stages of the nuclear fuel cycle therefore involves, with significant challenges, plant designers, manufacturers and operators.

The Nuclear Fuel Cycle by Nicholas Tsoulfanidis offers a pragmatic description of the whole fuel cycle. Its 12 chapters (478 pages) cover all aspects, from uranium ore mining, through to the manufacture and use of fuel, to recycled products, radioactive waste disposal and progress towards clearing a site. Topics include nuclear fuel resources (uranium and thorium), extraction of the metals from ore, fabrication of nuclear fuel, use of the fuel for power generation, and management and disposal of used fuel and radioactive wastes. Other topics discussed are basic reactor physics, in-core and out-of-core fuel management, possible fuel cycles, nuclear power economics, and nuclear safeguards. The various methods of generating electricity are also described and compared, concentrating on their environmental effects. Basic principles, environmental radioactivity (both natural and artificial), and provisions for safety are also covered.

The average technical level is set for a general scientific readership (which is not necessarily familiar with nuclear concepts), and although the viewpoint is naturally pro-nuclear, the aim is to inform rather than persuade. Where options are disputed, as whether used fuel should be reprocessed or discarded directly, both are described. The account is mainly of current practices, with holistic explanations of the reasons for them. Although the book is intended for a broad audience of nonspecialist readers, some specific points are not so easily understandable for readers without a preliminary knowledge in nuclear engineering matters (at a fundamental level at least).

The book could be useful for undergraduate and graduate students, as well as others involved in nuclear science and technology, but not for fuel cycle specialists.

This new edition has been extensively revised since the previous one (published in 1999), and includes a new chapter on nuclear security and safeguards.

The book seems more modern than some classical reference texts. In addition, as it has only a single author it offers a more coherent and holistic viewpoint, which ultimately makes it more suited for general reference. Each chapter has an extensive list of literature upon which it is based. Generally speaking, these references are wide-ranging and well-matched.

As a slight negative, although the book is well-written, some errors and occasional inconsistencies can still be found (for example, the author refers to fuel 'balls' for high-temperature reactors, although the correct technical term is 'pebbles').

"Although the book covers an unusually wide range of topics, sometimes it appears to be too US-centric."

Also, although the book covers an unusually wide range of topics, sometimes it appears to be too US-centric. A deeper look at fuel cycles practices outside the US would have made the book much more useful for readers all around the world. I am referring especially to fuel cycles not based on the once-through concept, including those already in use (for example, MOX-based) but also planned for the future (for example, actinide-based fuel cycles developed for fast reactors).

Nevertheless this book is and looks set to remain a valuable resource for researchers in a range of disciplines, and should help to inspire continued interest in nuclear fuel cycle-related topics.

In summary, the book achieves its purpose convincingly: it offers an overall description of the nuclear fuel cycle that is understandable for readers with at least a fundamental background in science. In particular, it:

  • Provides a comprehensive picture of the whole nuclear fuel cycle
  • Reviews the issues presented by the nuclear fuel cycle, including radiological protection and security, public acceptance and economics
  • Discusses issues at the front-end of the fuel cycle, including mining, enrichment and fuel design and fabrication
  • Reviews the impact of reactor design (including core physics aspects) on fuel irradiation, and the options available for spent fuel reprocessing and both high- and low-level radioactive waste management.

About the reviewer

Dr. Ing. Guglielmo Lomonaco is a nuclear engineer with a Ph.D. in Electrical and Thermal Energetics. He is Assistant Professor (Nuclear Plants) at GeNERG - DIME/TEC, University of Genoa, Italy and INFN Research Associate

About the book

The Nuclear Fuel Cycle [ISBN: 978- 0-89448-460-5], second edition, by Nicholas Tsoulfanidis, was published by the American Nuclear Society in 2013. It is available to purchase from priced at $120

Front cover

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