Spent nuclear fuel

Spent nuclear fuel, occasionally called used nuclear fuel, is nuclear fuel that has been irradiated in a nuclear reactor (usually at a nuclear power plant). It is no longer useful in sustaining a nuclear reaction in an ordinary thermal reactor and depending on its point along the nuclear fuel cycle, it may have considerably different isotopic constituents.

See Large, John H: Radioactive Decay Characteristics of Irradiated Nuclear Fuels, January 2006.[1]

In the oxide fuel, intense temperature gradients exist which cause fission products to migrate. The zirconium tends to move to the centre of the fuel pellet where the temperature is highest, while the lower-boiling fission products move to the edge of the pellet. The pellet is likely to contain lots of small bubble-like pores which form during use; the fission xenon migrates to these voids. Some of this xenon will then decay to form caesium, hence many of these bubbles contain a large concentration of 137Cs.

In the case of mixed oxide (MOX) fuel, the xenon tends to diffuse out of the plutonium-rich areas of the fuel, and it is then trapped in the surrounding uranium dioxide. The neodymium tends to not be mobile.

Also metallic particles of an alloy of Mo-Tc-Ru-Pd tend to form in the fuel. Other solids form at the boundary between the uranium dioxide grains, but the majority of the fission products remain in the uranium dioxide as solid solutions. A paper describing a method of making a non-radioactive "uranium active" simulation of spent oxide fuel exists.[2]

3% of the mass consists of fission products of 235U and 239Pu (also indirect products in the decay chain); these are considered radioactive waste or may be separated further for various industrial and medical uses. The fission products include every element from zinc through to the lanthanides; much of the fission yield is concentrated in two peaks, one in the second transition row (Zr, Mo, Tc, Ru, Rh, Pd, Ag) and the other later in the periodic table (I, Xe, Cs, Ba, La, Ce, Nd). Many of the fission products are either non-radioactive or only short-lived radioisotopes. But a considerable number are medium to long-lived radioisotopes such as 90Sr, 137Cs, 99Tc and 129I. Research has been conducted by several different countries into segregating the rare isotopes in fission waste including the "fission platinoids" (Ru, Rh, Pd) and silver (Ag) as a way of offsetting the cost of reprocessing; however, this is not currently being done commercially.

The fission products can modify the thermal properties of the uranium dioxide; the lanthanide oxides tend to lower the thermal conductivity of the fuel, while the metallic nanoparticles slightly increase the thermal conductivity of the fuel.[3]

About 1% of the mass is 239Pu and 240Pu resulting from conversion of 238U, which may be considered either as a useful byproduct, or as dangerous and inconvenient waste. One of the main concerns regarding nuclear proliferation is to prevent this plutonium from being used by states, other than those already established as nuclear weapons states, to produce nuclear weapons. If the reactor has been used normally, the plutonium is reactor-grade, not weapons-grade: it contains more than 19% 240Pu and less than 80% 239Pu, which makes it not ideal for making bombs. If the irradiation period has been short then the plutonium is weapons-grade (more than 80%, up to 93%).

This page was last edited on 27 May 2018, at 07:33 (UTC).
Reference: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spent_nuclear_fuel under CC BY-SA license.

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