Savannah River Nuclear Solutions (SRNS) has signed a memorandum of understanding with GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy (GEH) to explore the potential of deploying a prototype of GEH’s Generation IV PRISM reactor.  The PRISM reactor design is an advanced, Generation IV sodium-cooled reactor technology. A key attribute of PRISM technology is that it generates additional electricity from recycling used nuclear fuel.  The design completed U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission pre-application reviews in 1994 – sixteen years ago.

Sodium Cooled Fast Reactor. Click image for the largest view.

The Savannah River site is run by SRNS, a private-sector consortium lead by Fluor Daniel, Northrup Grumman and Honeywell all large capable and engineering rich businesses.  The site seems to be focusing particularly on research and development of small modular reactors. “I envisage a clean energy campus, where we will work together with the private sector,” said the new director of the Savannah River National Laboratory, Terry Michalske, during a press conference.

The deal would aim to determine the suitability of deploying a 299MW PRISM reactor at the Department of Energy’s Savannah River site.  PRISM research and development stalled after US federal funding for the GNEP program was wound down in 2009.

Kevin Walsh, GE’s senior vice president for nuclear fuel cycle, told Nuclear Engineering International in September 2010 that no PRISM research was then taking place, but that research was mostly complete, “If we could get government funding to go forward with an experimental installation of the PRISM reactor, then the detailed design would be done at that point. The early design and testing [in the expired GNEP program] was to further work done on the EBR at Argonne National Laboratory, which is what the PRISM concept was based on.”

Walsh also explained that GE-Hitachi leans away from reprocessing, and towards recycling, as a potential future fuel cycle in the USA: “Our vision is recycling – you burn the actinides in a fast reactor, such as PRISM, and you don’t separate plutonium. That alleviates some of the proliferation concerns, and you get as close to closing the fuel cycle as practical. You also reduce waste, and reduce the half-life of radioisotopes that are disposed.”

This news follows two-week-old news that might have been seen as a clue.

There is a special commission evaluating options to help the U.S. Department of Energy develop a scientifically sound and economically viable strategy to deal with the growing stockpiles of used nuclear fuel from commercial reactors.  The Obama administration convened the blue ribbon commission to help address potential public health and non-proliferation concerns associated with the now-scuttled plan to open a long-term storage facility at Yucca Mountain in Nevada as well as other used fuel-management practices.

GEH announced October 16, 2010 its Advanced Recycling Center (ARC) technology has been approved as a part of GE’s ecomagination™ portfolio. The ARC technology offers the industry just that – a new, cost-effective way of treating used nuclear fuel.  Or more clearly, GEH is putting some pre set aside cash behind the effort.

That puts GEH to urging the commission to recommend that the White House and Congress support the deployment of its next-generation recycling technology, citing its significant environmental and economic advantages over existing, less efficient reprocessing methods.

Along with getting the nasty actinides burned up, the PRISM can use much of the potential energy in light water reactor fuel assemblies that remains untapped when they are removed from a old design reactor’s core and replaced with fresh fuel during regularly scheduled refueling outages.

The benefit, and it’s a big one, is a PRISM ARC can extract more than “100 times” the energy from uranium compared to the “once-through” fuel cycle employed by current nuclear plants. As a result, there is a significant reduction in waste requiring long-term storage, and for a much shorter duration. The ARC also offers attractive non-proliferation advantages over existing reprocessing methods because it does not separate pure plutonium and, in fact, can consume unwanted weapons-grade plutonium as fuel.

This writer is still a little dubious about that “100 times” comment being shown off in news reports, but getting even another equal power cycle from the fuel is very worthwhile.  Anything over that is a stunning bonus.

One ARC set of three PRISM reactors using the spent fuel of an existing nuclear power plant would put out 90% of the power. Double up the ACR to six PRISMs and you have 180% output.  There is no energy shortage, just a shortage of foresight to get ideas working.  The U.S. market alone could be number about 600 PRISM units.  Lots of construction jobs in that effort.

PRISM isn’t perfect.  There is still a residue of used fuel in greatly reduced volume and with a much lower level of danger and time required for an inert state.  But if energy extraction is going to be a factor in the choices government makes to dispense with today’s used fuel, PRISM is a leader and offers a huge resource to tap as well.


5 Comments so far

  1. Hope to Rid the World of Spent Nuclear Fuel With a Benefit | New … | PCTechTalk on November 2, 2010 6:43 AM

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  2. World Spinner on November 2, 2010 7:29 AM

    Hope to Rid the World of Spent Nuclear Fuel With a Benefit | New ……

    Here at World Spinner we are debating the same thing……

  3. Matt Musson on November 2, 2010 9:27 AM

    They won’t seperate out the Plutonium? I guess there is a declining need for bombs.

  4. J.P. Katigbak on November 2, 2010 7:23 PM

    Does the mischaracterisation about the need for “ridding the world of spent nuclear fuel with the benefit” occur because of simple misgivings? Or is ignore the complexity of an issue over utilisation of atomic energy that deserves merit to some extent?

    There are varying aspects of an issue that needs to be tackled with caution – the more serious it is, the more important to tackle the complexity of the scientific & technological merits of utilising nuclear power for the sake of mankind’s usefulness.

    Do you really understand what am I trying to say about this,

    It is time to have you debated properly, because you need to know about how to tackle the atomic energy issue with caution, boldness, forsight, and confidence in economic & social progress, environmental conservation & protection, improvement & progress in science and technology, public governance & safety, improvements in energy, communications and transportation, and many more.

    DO NOT FORGET IT! Thank you very much.

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