The European Commission (EC) has approved development by Belgian Research Centre (SCK-CEN) and the Liège-based Centre for Metallurgical Research (CRM) of an advanced smelter for metal from dismantled NPPs. SCK-CEN said the furnace will encourage the creation of a circular economy in nuclear dismantling, by enabling more metal to be re-used than it currently possible using established smelting technologies.

NPP dismantling produces three main categories metal. Most of it has no residual radioactivity and can go through a conventional recycling process. Some is too contaminated to be processed or recycled and is categorised as nuclear waste and sent for disposal. However, some has a limited level of radioactivity, which means it can be recycled using special infrastructure.

The Belgian government in June 2023 allocated €13.5m ($14.5m) under the Belgian Recovery & Resilience Plan to the SMELD (State-of-the-art Metal Melting Limiting waste during D&D) project being developed by SCK CEN and CRM. The project partners intend to complete the work to construct the furnace by 2026.

SMELD aims to develop a facility that will enable larger quantities of metal emanating from dismantling to be recycled. It focuses on material that is too radioactive to be recycled immediately, but not radioactive enough to be disposed of as radioactive waste. SCK CEN and CRM said the decision by the European Union “reconfirms the social importance of our plan”.

Thomas Dermine, Secretary of State for Recovery & Strategic Investments, said the EC approval “is a powerful example of how Belgium, with European support, takes a leading role in developing new technologies with global potential”. He added: “The SMELD project illustrates the targeted allocation of resources to promote a circular economy in dismantling, demonstrating that with innovative approaches, we can reduce the ecological impact of nuclear dismantling. It is a tangible result of our commitment to sustainability and technological advancement."

Guido Mulier, a dismantling expert at SCK CEN noted that more than 70 nuclear reactors have already closed down in Europe and it is estimated that dozens more will follow in the coming years. “It therefore won't be long before they fall due for dismantling. Recycling and re-using the maximum quantity of materials makes it possible to reduce the ecological footprint of dismantling. And that is what this project is all about: a desire to create a circular economy in dismantling.”

CRM CEO Joeri Neutjens said the partners are focusing their attention on material that is too radioactive to be recycled immediately, but not radioactive enough to be disposed of as radioactive waste. “That particular category actually accounts for considerable volumes. We believe that by putting in place the right technologies and installations, we will be able to give that metal a second life.”

The intention is that SMELD will lead to an upgraded form of the technology for large-scale melting plants. By capturing most of the radioisotopes during melting and separating them from the metal, existing plants are already bringing about a dramatic reduction in the quantity of radioactive waste. Nevertheless, some radioisotopes are difficult to capture using the techniques currently available. “We – literally – believe that still more can be got out of the process and have made it our target to ensure that the new melting furnace is more effective at isolating those residual radioisotopes as well. Larger quantities of metal can then be recycled and re-used,” Neutjens noted.

The partners said this was their aim “but we must first await the results of our fundamental research and our feasibility study”, These should provide answers to various questions such as: how do those radioisotopes behave before, during and after the melting process; what can be done to improve existing industrial techniques in order to meet the specific requirements of the project; and is the furnace also suitable for material originating from other nuclear facilities, including cyclotrons.

The furnace will undergo an extensive development process, in which advanced thermodynamic simulations will be combined with laboratory-scale provisional feasibility and optimisation tests. The initial part of that process is being carried out at CRM Group using non-radioactive materials and will be followed by small-scale tests at SCK CEN using radioisotopes. The partners will then scale up the development into a genuine, advanced processing furnace.

According to Guido Mulier, the advent of an advanced processing furnace represents a trump card that will enable Belgium to put itself on the international map. “Any country commencing a dismantling project stands to benefit from improved recycling techniques. We are paving the way towards an installation of that type, the commercial operation of which will ultimately be undertaken by an industrial partner. SCK CEN and CRM will reserve the right to continue carrying out research in that installation as a means of optimising existing techniques, but also new ones.”