U.S. Department of Energy Awards $38 Million for Projects Leading Used Nuclear Fuel Recycling Initiative

Selectees from Universities, National Laboratories, and the Private Sector Will Advance Technologies to Recycle Used Nuclear Fuel Generated from Commercial Nuclear Power Reactors

WASHINGTON, D.C. —  The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) today announced $38 million for a dozen projects that will work to reduce the impacts of light-water reactor used nuclear fuel (UNF) disposal. The projects, led by universities, private companies, and national laboratories, were selected to develop technologies to advance UNF recycling, reduce the volume of high-level waste requiring permanent disposal, and provide safe domestic advanced reactor fuel stocks. Nuclear energy generates nearly a fifth of America’s electricity and accounts for half of all domestic clean energy generation. While used nuclear fuel, sometimes referred to as spent nuclear fuel, is created during the process of generating nuclear energy, clean energy generated from this fuel would be enough to power more than 70 million homes. Further, UNF can be recycled to make new fuel and byproducts that support the deployment of nuclear energy and advance President Biden’s goals to offset climate change and domestic reliance on fossil energy through widespread clean energy use. 

“For America to further harness the safe, reliable clean energy produced at nuclear facilities across the country, the Biden-Harris Administration and DOE recognize the importance of developing practical uses for America’s used nuclear fuel,” said U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm. “Recycling nuclear waste for clean energy generation can significantly reduce the amount of spent fuel at nuclear sites, and increase economic stability for the communities leading this important work.”   

Upon discharge from a nuclear reactor, the UNF is initially stored in steel-lined concrete pools surrounded by water. It is later removed from the pools and placed into dry storage casks with protective shielding. Most of the nation’s used fuel is safely and securely stored at more than 70 reactor sites across the country. Projects funded through the Converting UNF Radioisotopes Into Energy (CURIE) program will enable secure, economical recycling of the nation’s UNF and substantially reduce the volume, heat load, and radiotoxicity of waste requiring permanent disposal. These efforts will also provide a valuable and sustainable fuel feedstock for advanced reactors.  

Led by DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), the following teams have been selected to develop separation technologies with improved proliferation resistance and safeguards technologies for fuel recycling facilities, and perform system design studies to support fuel recycling:  

  • Argonne National Laboratory (Lemont, IL) will develop a highly efficient process that converts 97% of UNF oxide fuel to metal using stable next-generation anode materials. (Award amount: $4,900,000) 
  • Argonne National Laboratory (Lemont, IL) will develop, produce, and test a suite of compact rotating packed bed contactors for used nuclear fuel reprocessing. (Award amount: $1,520,000) 
  • Curio (Washington, DC) will develop and demonstrate steps of the team’s UNF recycling process—known as NuCycle—at the laboratory scale. (Award amount: $5,000,000) 
  • EPRI (Charlotte, NC) will develop a recycling tool intended to address the coupled challenges of nuclear fuel life-cycle management and advanced reactor fuel supply. (Award amount: $2,796,545) 
  • GE Research (Niskayuna, NY) will develop a revolutionary safeguards solution for aqueous reprocessing facilities. (Award amount: $6,449,997)  
  • Idaho National Laboratory (Idaho Falls, ID) will design, fabricate, and test anode materials for electrochemically reducing actinide and fission product oxides in UNF. (Award amount: $2,659,677) 
  • Mainstream Engineering (Rockledge, FL) will develop a vacuum swing separation technology to separate and capture volatile radionuclides, which should lower life cycle capital and operating costs, and minimize waste that must be stored. (Award amount: $1,580,774) 
  • NuVision Engineering (Mooresville, NC) will design, build, and commission an integrated material accountancy test platform that will predict post-process nuclear material accountancy to within 1% uncertainty in an aqueous reprocessing facility. (Award amount: $4,715,163) 
  • University of Alabama at Birmingham (Birmingham, AL) will develop a single-step process that recycles UNF by recovering the bulk of uranium and other transuranics from UNF after dissolution in nitric acid. (Award amount: $1,844,998)  
  • University of Colorado, Boulder (Boulder, CO) will advance technology capable of high-accuracy, substantially faster measurements of complex UNF mixtures. (Award amount: $1,994,663) 
  • University of North Texas (Denton, TX) will develop a self-powered, wireless sensor for long-term, real-time monitoring of high-temperature molten salt density and level to enable accurate safeguarding and monitoring of electrochemical processing of UNF. (Award amount: $2,711,342)  
  • University of Utah (Salt Lake City, UT) will develop a pyrochemical process for efficiently converting UNF into a fuel feedstock suitable for sodium-cooled fast reactors or molten-salt-fueled reactors. (Award amount: $1,454,074)  

Learn more about the projects selected as part of the CURIE program as well as additional programs within ARPA-E that support the deployment of nuclear energy, including MEITNERGEMINA and ONWARDS.