The nuclear fuel cycle, also called nuclear fuel chain, is the progression of nuclear fuel through a series of different stages. It consists of steps in the front end, which are the preparation of the fuel, steps in the service period in which the fuel is used during reactor operation, and steps in the back end, which are necessary to safely manage, content, and either reprocess or dispose of spent nuclear fuel. If spent fuel is not reprocessed, the fuel cycle is referred to as an open fuel cycle (or a once-through fuel cycle); if the spent fuel is reprocessed, it is referred to as a closed fuel cycle.
Nuclear power relies on fissionable material that can sustain a chain reaction with neutrons. Examples of such materials include uranium and plutonium. Most nuclear reactors use a moderator to lower the kinetic energy of the neutrons and increase the probability that fission will occur. This allows reactors to use material with far lower concentration of fissile isotopes than nuclear weapons. Graphite and heavy water are the most effective moderators, because they slow the neutrons through collisions without absorbing them. Reactors using heavy water or graphite as the moderator can operate using natural uranium.
A light water reactor (LWR) uses water in the form that occurs in nature, and require fuel that is enriched in fissile isotopes, typically uranium enriched to 3–5% in the less common isotope U-235, the only fissile isotope that is found in significant quantity in nature. One alternative to this low-enriched uranium (LEU) fuel are Mixed Oxide (MOX) fuels produced by blending plutonium with natural or depleted uranium, and these fuels provide an avenue to utilize surplus weapons-grade plutonium. Another type of MOX fuel involves mixing LEU with thorium, which generates the fissile isotope U-233. Both plutonium and U-233 are produced from the absorption of neutrons by irradiating fertile materials in a reactor, in particular the common uranium isotope U-238 and thorium, respectively, and can be separated from spent uranium and thorium fuels in reprocessing plants.
Some reactors do not use moderators to slow the neutrons. Like nuclear weapons, which also use unmoderated or "fast" neutrons, these fast-neutron reactors require much higher concentrations of fissile isotopes in order to sustain a chain reaction. They are also capable of breeding fissile isotopes from fertile materials; a breeder reactor is one that generates more fissile material in this way than it consumes.
During the nuclear reaction inside a reactor, the fissile isotopes in nuclear fuel are consumed, producing more and more fission products, most of which are considered radioactive waste. The buildup of fission products and consumption of fissile isotopes eventually stop the nuclear reaction, causing the fuel to become a spent nuclear fuel. When 3% enriched LEU fuel is used, the spent fuel typically consists of roughly 1% U-235, 95% U-238, 1% plutonium and 3% fission products. Spent fuel and other high-level radioactive waste is extremely hazardous, although nuclear reactors produce relatively small volumes of waste compared to other power plants because of the high energy density of nuclear fuel. Safe management of these byproducts of nuclear power, including their storage and disposal, is a difficult problem for any country using nuclear power.
A deposit of uranium, such as uraninite, discovered by geophysical techniques, is evaluated and sampled to determine the amounts of uranium materials that are extractable at specified costs from the deposit. Uranium reserves are the amounts of ore that are estimated to be recoverable at stated costs. Uranium in nature consists primarily of two isotopes, U-238 and U-235. The numbers refer to the atomic mass number for each isotope, or the number of protons and neutrons in the atomic nucleus. Naturally occurring uranium consists of approximately 99.28% U-238 and 0.71% U-235. The atomic nucleus of U-235 will nearly always separation when struck by a free neutron, and the isotope is therefore said to be a "fissile" isotope. The nucleus of a U-238 atom on the other hand, rather than undergoing fission when struck by a free neutron, will nearly always absorb the neutron and yield an atom of the isotope U-239. This isotope then undergoes natural radioactive decay to yield Pu-239, which, like U-235, is a fissile isotope. The atoms of U-238 are said to be fertile, because, through neutron irradiation in the core, some eventually yield atoms of fissile Pu-239.
Uranium ore can be extracted through conventional mining in open pit and underground methods similar to those used for mining other metals. In-situ leach mining methods also used to mine uranium in the United States. In this technology, uranium is leached from the in-place ore through an array of regularly spaced wells and is then recovered from the leach solution at a surface plant. Uranium ores in the United States typically range from about 0.05 to 0.3% uranium oxide (U3O8). Some uranium deposits developed in other countries are of higher grade and are also larger than deposits mined in the United States. Uranium is also present in very low-grade amounts (50 to 200 parts per million) in some domestic phosphate-bearing deposits of marine origin.
Nuclear fuel cycle begins when uranium is mined, enriched and manufactured to nuclear fuel (1) which is delivered to a nuclear power plant. After usage in the power plant the spent fuel is delivered to a reprocessing plant (if fuel is recycled) (2) or to a final repository (if no recycling is done) (3) for geological disposition. In reprocessing 95% of spent fuel can be recycled to be returned to usage in a nuclear power plant (4).
The underlying motivation was that nuclear energy, which today provides about 70% of the "zero"- carbon electricity in the U.S., is an important option for the market place in a low-carbon world. Major changes in the US and the world have taken place as described in our 2009 update of the 2003 future of Nuclear Power Report. Concerns about climate change have risen: many countries have adopted restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere, and the U.S. is expected to adopt similar limits. Projections for nuclear-power growth worldwide have increased dramatically and construction of new plants has accelerated, particularly in China and India. This study on The Future of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle has been carried out because of the continuing importance of nuclear power as a low-carbon option that could be deployed at a scale that is material for mitigating climate change risk, namely, global deployment at the Terawatt scale by mid-century.
4. Margulova T. H. «Atomic energy today and tomorrow». 1996.
Tashlykov O. L. «Organization and technology of nuclear power». 1995
Makarov A. A., Fortov V. E. «Trends in the global energy and Russia's energy strategy». 2004