Could spent nuclear fuel be considered as a non-conventional mine of critical raw materials?

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Abstract

Each year, more than 10 thousand tons of spent fuels are discharged from nuclear power plants in the world. Heavy element nuclear fission reactions, at the origin of energy production, generate fission products of intermediary mass, some of them being considered nowadays as critical raw materials. The potential interest to treat these spent fuels in order to recycle these elements has risen recently following increasing international tensions on their supply for industry and energy. A study was carried out on the basis of the French nuclear fuel cycle scenario in order first to evaluate the inventory of such metals in spent fuel. The only elements of interest, since in significant amount, would be rare earth elements (REE) and platinum group metals (PGM). However, compare to the annual need of REE, the amount that would be recovered from spent fuels represent less than 0.01% of the annual world production. Because of the low price of these elements, there is no economic interest for such a recovery. The case of PGM, and specifically ruthenium and rhodium, is quite different. Even if a lower amount of these elements are in spent fuel, it represents 22% for Ru and 3.5% for Rh of the annual world production. The drawback is that these elements have numerous radioactive isotopes that forbid using them for industrial applications. 20–50 years of storage after separation would be necessary for ruthenium and rhodium to get a radioactivity level lower than potential clearance levels. Before any industrial use, very efficient separation processes would be required to selectively recover these elements. The physico-chemical forms of these elements in the spent fuel make the work tricky. Finally, such a use would require the official existence of a clearance level for nuclear materials as recommended by the IAEA.

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Bourg, S., & Poinssot, C. (2017). Could spent nuclear fuel be considered as a non-conventional mine of critical raw materials? Progress in Nuclear Energy, 94, 222–228. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pnucene.2016.08.004

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