In a new report, “What a waste: How fast-fission power can provide clean energy from nuclear waste”, environmental group RePlanet advocates recycling used nuclear fuel as fuel for advanced fast reactors. While Europe's nuclear power reactors "have a long history of safe use, and have provided prodigious quantities of clean electricity for decades", they use less than 1% of the energy potential in the natural uranium used to make their fuel, the report notes. Moreover, irradiated fuel assemblies removed from reactors are considered “nuclear waste”.

RePlanet says it “is a network of grassroots charitable organisations driven by science-based solutions to climate change, biodiversity collapse and the need to eliminate poverty” funded exclusively from charitable sources. “We have not received any funding from industry or party-political sources,” it adds.

In a remarkable stand to take for an environmental organisation, the report says: "While this nuclear 'waste' is not a serious environmental or health threat – it occupies trivial volumes compared to waste produced by other industries, and does not harm anyone if properly shielded and safeguarded – it does provide a political challenge, and is among the most oft-cited reasons for continued opposition to carbon-free nuclear power."

RePlanet says using this used fuel in a new generation of fast-neutron reactors would "eliminate it as a 'waste' concern via a carbon-free waste-to-energy process". It notes that most of the remaining leftover fission products would return to a level of radioactivity comparable to the original uranium ore within 200-300 years. "This means that current deep geological disposal strategies can be simplified and scaled back."

RePlanet calls on green parties of Europe to end their "dangerous and unscientific" opposition to nuclear energy, given the dangers of climate change. Mark Lynas, climate author and RePlanet co-founder rejects the view that spent nuclear fuel is a waste product that needs to be buried underground, leaving a toxic legacy for future generations. "Anti-nuclear campaigners never tire of repeating this mantra in their campaign to shut down nuclear plants irrespective of our climate emergency,” he noted. “However, we show in this RePlanet report that nuclear waste simply needs to be recycled efficiently in order to generate centuries of clean power for Europe and the UK. This material is not waste, it is fuel for the future."

The report proposes “a repurposing of nuclear materials with a view to fast-tracking an urgent programme of fast reactor build-outs”. These must be deployed in such a way as to reduce grid congestion and increase security of supply to enable the deployment of wind, solar and nuclear for the majority of electrical power generation and heat supply in a net zero Europe.” It notes: “We find, using a calculation based mainly on current inventories of uranium, that there is sufficient energy in nuclear ‘waste’ to run Europe at current electrical power consumption for up to a thousand years. If unconventional uranium and thorium resources are considered in the global picture, nuclear fuel is essentially limitless.”

Using this fuel in a new generation of fast-neutron reactors would eliminate it as a ‘waste’ concern via a carbon-free waste-to-energy process,” it points out. “Most of the remaining leftover fission products would return to a level of radioactivity comparable to the original uranium ore within 200-300 years. This means that current deep geological disposal strategies can be simplified and scaled back.”

RePlanet comments: “While the economics of fast reactors are currently unproven, if resources currently intended for deep geological disposal of spent fuel were diverted instead into a fast reactor programme that would enable the re-use of that fuel, this would turn a burden into a useful part of a legitimate circular economic activity.”

In further notes: “Many countries in the past have run fast reactor prototypes, such as EBRII in the United States, Phénix in France, Monju in Japan and the Russian BN fast reactor programme. The Western programmes were closed down prematurely for a combination of political and technical reasons, with only the Russian effort currently continuing…. (Due to the war in Ukraine, we do not discuss the Russian fast reactor programme further in this report.)”

This is unfortunate, because a closer look at Russia’s fast reactor programme would, for one thing, show that the economics of fast reactors are not “unproven”. Russia’s BN-600 at unit 3 of the Beloyarsk NPP, which has been operating and supplying power since 1980, is one of the more efficient and economic in the country. Furthermore, Russia’s pilot demonstration power complex (ODEK) under construction at Siberian Chemical Combine based on the Brest-OD-300 fast reactor is specifically designed to reuse fuel at a single site which also includes fuel fabrication and recycling facilities. A closer look at the Russian programme would give much more weight to this report.

Replanet says: “We are not, however, proposing 100% of generation from fast reactors. If we instead assume, for illustrative purposes, that renewables (plus whatever is the size of the light-water reactor fleet at the time) make up 80% of generation on an annualised basis, this means fast reactors need only to generate 20% of power, allowing us to multiply the available energy in current fuel stockpiles by a factor of five. Fast reactors could therefore make up the difference for a fully carbon-free electricity grid for over a thousand years, even at tripled rates of electricity use in our high estimate, if they work in support of renewables.” This is precisely the basis of Russia’s long-term nuclear power development strategy.

Its report concludes: “The rapid deployment of today’s modern, commercially available ‘once-through’ nuclear reactor technology should not be abandoned, even as we push for fast reactors to become available. Fast breeder reactors are able to work together with existing reactor designs, since breeders produce enough fuel to resupply not just themselves but also an additional conventional reactor of the same power. All forms of nuclear can thus also work together, in partnership with renewables.”