The US Department of Energy (DOE) on 19 May announced up to $40 million in funding for a new Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) programme that will limit the amount of waste produced from advanced nuclear reactors. “More than half of our zero carbon energy is generated from nuclear power, and through this ground-breaking research we can expand nuclear's potential,” said Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm. “America is an innovation leader, and DOE is proud to invest in the next generation of nuclear energy technologies that will power the nation and protect our environment.”
Nuclear power provided 52% of the USA’s carbon-free electricity in 2020, and about a fifth of US electricity overall. Nuclear power production, however, produces approximately 2,000 metric tons of used fuel each year that must be disposed and safely stored.
As advanced nuclear reactor technologies move from research and development phases to deployment, ARPA-E’s new “Optimising Nuclear Waste and Advanced Reactor Disposal Systems” (ONWARDS) programme addresses challenges posed by the limited disposal options for used nuclear fuel through the development of novel processes and applications at the start of a fuel cycle that prevents the formation of nuclear waste.
ONWARDS is ARPA-E’s first focused programme working to identify transformative Advanced Nuclear Reactor (AR), used nuclear fuel (UNF) waste, and UNF disposal pathways. ARPA-E's statutory authority was updated in the ARPA-E Reauthorisation Act of 2019, charging the agency to “provide transformative solutions to improve the management, clean-up, and disposal of radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel.”
Proactively reducing the amount of waste from AR poses an innovative opportunity that will enable the future deployment of nuclear power, DOE said. ONWARDS teams will seek to facilitate a 10-fold reduction in UNF and waste volume generation or repository footprint across three key areas:
- Process: Improvements in fuel recycling that significantly minimise waste volumes, improve intrinsic proliferation resistance, increase resource use, and bolster AR commercialisation.
- Safeguards: Improvements in sensor and data fusion technologies that enable accurate and timely accounting of nuclear materials.
- Waste form: Development of high-performance waste forms for all AR classes with an emphasis on those forms that span multiple reactor classes and disposal environments and are safe and stable over required timescales.